• Christopher Steele’s Other Job: He Ran an Info Op Against the United States (How to Steele an Election)

    February 18, 2018 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump

    Christopher Steele did far more than simply provide an opposition research dossier to the Democratic National Committee, his Job One. As a skilled intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States, aided either willingly or unwittingly by the FBI. His second job was the more important one: get his information into the most effective hands to influence the United States in the most significant way.

    To understand how effective Steele has been in his op, we need to understand he had two jobs. The first was to create the dossier. The second job was to disseminate the dossier. Steele had to get the information into the most effective hands to influence the United States in the most significant way.

     

    Job One: Create the Dossier

    Job One was to create the opposition research. “Oppo” is not a neutral gathering of facts, but a search for negative information that can be used against an opponent. The standards — vetting — vary with the intended use. Some info might be published with documents and verification. Some leads discovered might be planted in hopes a journalist will uncover more “on her own,” creating credibility. Some likely near-falsehoods might be handed out to sleazy media in hopes more legit media will cross report — the New York Times might not initially run a story about a sexual dalliance itself, but it will run a story saying “Buzzfeed reports a sexual dalliance involving…”

    Oppo research follows no rules; this is not peer-reviewed stuff that has to pass an ethics board. One goes out with bags of money shouting “Anyone got dirt on our opponent? We’re paying, but only for dirt!” You look for people who didn’t like a deal, people with an axe to grind, the jilted ex-wife, not the happy current one. So to say oppo research might be biased is to miss the point.

    You’re not required to look too far under a rock that hides something naughty — stop when you’ve got what you came for. It all depends how the information will be deployed. The less sure you are about the veracity of the information you acquire the more you need that info to be inherently palatable; it has to feel right to the intended audience. The old political joke is you need to find a live boy in bed, or a dead girl, to really smear an opponent with a sex scandal. So if you’re going to run with info that supports what the public already sort of believes, the standards are lower.

     

    What Does the Dossier Say?

    Turning to Christopher Steele’s dossier, it looks like he read the same espionage textbook as everyone else. So while it would have been a game-changer had Steele found unambiguous evidence of financial transactions between Trump and the Russian government, that would have required real evidence. Steele’s sources claim money changed hands, but never provide him with proof. On dossier (page 20) one source goes as far as to say no documentary evidence exists.

    That means instead of the complex financing scams you might expect out of Trump, the big takeaway from the dossier is the pee tape, sources claiming the Russians have video to blackmail Trump at any moment. The thing reaches almost the level of parody, because not only does the dossier claim Trump likes fetish sex, the fetish sex occurred in the context of an anti-Obama act (Trump supposedly for his pleasure employed prostitutes to urinate on a bed Obama once slept in.) As for other sex parties Trump supposedly participated in, the dossier notes all direct witnesses were “silenced.” You couldn’t do better if you made it all up.

    In fact, the thing reads very much like what lay people imagine spies come up with. In real intelligence work, documents showing transactions from cash to commercial paper to gold run through a Cayman Islands’ bank are much more effective than dirty video; the latter can be denied, and may or may not even matter to a public already bored by boasts of pussy grabbing and rawdog sex with porn stars. The former will show up in court as part of a racketeering and tax evasion charge that dead solid perfect sends people to jail. Intelligence officers who pay out sources maintain meticulous receipts; you think their own agencies trust them with bags of cash? And in the dark world, prostitutes don’t need to be “silenced.” They have no credibility in most people’s’ minds to begin with, and a trail of bodies just attracts attention. And unlike Steele’s product, real intel reporting is full of qualifiers, maybes, liklies and so forth, not a laundry list of certainties, because you know your own sources have an agenda. The dossier is also short of the kind of verifiable details of specific dates and places you’d expect. It is a collection of unverifiable assertions by second-hand sources, not evidence. Steele is a smart man, an experienced intelligence officer, who knew exactly what he was writing — a dossier that will read true to the rubes.

    So it is not surprising to date there has been no public corroboration of anything in the dossier. If significant parts of the dossier could be proven, there would be grounds for impeachment with no further work needed. At least one fact has been disproven –Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, produced his passport to rebut the dossier’s claim that he had secret meetings in Prague with a Russian official.

    Job Two: Run the Info Op, Place the Dossier

    Steele excelled at turning his dossier into a full-spectrum information operation, what some might call information warfare. This is what separates his work creating the dossier (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work infiltrating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of op. You want foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

    Steele’s skill is revealed by the Nunes and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream — his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA court.

    Steele admits he briefed journalists off-the-record starting in summer and autumn 2016. His most significant hit came when journalist Michael Isikoff broke the story of Trump associate Carter Page’s alleged connections to Russia. Isikoff did not cite the dossier or Steele as sources, and in fact denied they were when questioned.

    Isikoff’s story didn’t just push negative information about Trump into the public consciousness. It claimed U.S. intel officials were probing ties between a Trump adviser and the Kremlin, adding credibility; the feds themselves felt the info was worthwhile! Better yet for Steele, Isikoff claimed the information came from a “well-placed Western intelligence source,” suggesting it originated from a third-party and was picked up by Western spies instead of being written by one. Steele also placed articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Mother Jones, and others.

    At the same time, Steele’s info reached influential people like John McCain, who could then pick up a newspaper and believe he was seeing the “secret” info from Steele confirmed independently by an experienced journalist. And how did McCain first learn about Steele’s work? At a conference in Canada, via Andrew Wood, former British Ambassador in Moscow. Where was Wood working at the time? Orbis, Christopher Steele’s research firm.

    A copy of the dossier even found its way to the State Department, an organization which normally should have been far removed from U.S. election politics. A contact within State passed information from Clinton associates Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer (both men played also active roles behind in the scenes feeding Clinton dubious information on Libya) to and from Steele. The Grassley memo suggests there is was a second Steele document, in addition to the dossier, already shared with State and the FBI but not made public.

    The Gold Medal: Become the Source of Someone Else’s Investigation

    While seeding his dossier in the media and around Washington, Steele was also meeting in secret with the FBI (he claims he did not inform Fusion GPS, his employer), via an FBI counterintelligence handler in Rome. Steele began feeding the FBI in July 2016 with updates into the fall, apparently in the odd guise of simply a deeply concerned, loyal British subject. “This is something of huge significance, way above party politics,” Steele commented as to his motives.

    The FBI, in the process of working Steele, would have likely characterized him as a “source,” technically a “extra-territorial confidential human source.” That meant the dossier’s claims appeared to come from the ex-MI6 officer with the good reputation, not second-hand from who knows who in Russia (the FBI emphasized Steele’s reputation when presenting the dossier to the FISC.) Think of it as a kind of money laundering which, like that process, helped muddy the real source of the goods.

    The FBI used the Steele dossier to apply for a FISA court surveillance warrant against Carter Page. The FBI also submitted Isikoff’s story as collaborating evidence, without explaining the article and the dossier were effectively one in the same. In intelligence work, this is known as cross-contamination, an amateur error. The FBI however, according to the Nunes memo, did not tell the FISA court the Steele dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee as commissioned opposition research, nor did they tell the court the Isikoff article presented as collaborating evidence was in fact based on the same dossier.

    Steele reached an agreement with the FBI a few weeks before the election for the bureau to pay him $50,000 to continue his “research,” though the deal is believed to have fallen through after the dossier became public (though an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele did in fact operate as a fully paid FBI asset.) Along the way the FBI also informed Steele of their separate investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos, a violation of security and a possible tainting of Steele’s research going forward.

    Gold Medal Plus: Collaborate Your Own Information

    The Nunes memo also showed then-associate deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr back-channeled additional material from Steele into the DOJ while working with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and her replacement, Rod Rosenstein. Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, on Steele’s project. Ohr’s wife would be especially valuable in that she would be able to clandestinely supply info to collaborate what Steele told the FBI and, via her husband, know to tailor what she passed to the questions DOJ had. The FBI did not disclose the role of Ohr’s wife, who speaks Russian and has previously done contract work for the CIA, to the FISA court.

    Ohr’s wife only began work for Fusion GPS in September/October 2016, as the FBI sought the warrant against Page based on the Steele dossier. Ohr’s wife taking a new job with Fusion GPS at that critical juncture screams of the efforts of an experienced intelligence officer looking to create yet another pipeline inside, essentially his own asset.

    Steele’s Success, With a Little Help From His Friends

    All talk of Russia aside, it is difficult to find evidence of a foreigner who played a more significant role in the election than Christopher Steele. Steele took a dossier paid for by one party and drove it deep into the United States. Steele’s work formed in part the justification for a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump associate, the end game of which has not yet been written.

    Steele maneuvered himself from paid opposition researcher to clandestine source for the FBI. Steele then may have planted the spouse of a senior DOJ employee as a second clandestine source to move more information into DOJ. In the intelligence world, that is as good as it gets; via two seemingly independent channels you are controlling the opponent’s information cycle.

    Steele further manipulated the American media to have his information amplified and given credibility. By working simultaneously as both an anonymous and a cited source, he got his same info out as if it was coming from multiple places.

    There is informed speculation Steele was more than a source for the FBI, and actually may have been tasked and paid to search for specific information, essentially working as a double agent for the FBI and the DNC. Others have raised questions about Steele’s status as “retired” from British intelligence, as the lines among working for MI6, working at MI6, and working with MI6 are often times largely a matter of semantics. Unless Steele wanted to burn all of his contacts within British intelligence, it is highly unlikely he would insert himself into an American presidential campaign without at least informing his old workmates, if not seeking tacit permission (for the record, Steele’s old boss at MI6 calls the dossier credible; an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele shared all of his information with MI6.) It is unclear if the abrupt January 2017 resignation of Robert Hannigan, the head of Britain’s NSA-like Government Communications Headquarters, is related in any way to Steele’s work becoming public.

    As for the performance of the DOJ/FBI, we do not have enough information to judge whether they were incompetent, or simply willing partners to what Steele was up to, using him as a handy pretext to open legal surveillance on someone inside the Trump circle (surveillance on Page may have also monitored Steve Bannon.)

     

    How to Steele an Election

    The Washington Post characterized Steele as “struggling to navigate dual obligations — to his private clients, who were paying him to help Clinton win, and to a sense of public duty born of his previous life.” The Washington Post has no idea how intelligence officers work. Their job is to befriend and engage the target to carry out the goals of their employer. When they do it right, the public summation is a line like the Post offered; you never even knew you were being used. In the macho world of intelligence, the process is actually described more crudely, having to do with using enough lubrication so the target didn’t even feel a rough thing pushed up a very sensitive place.

    Steele played the FBI while the FBI thought they were playing him. Or the other way around, because everyone was looking the other way. Steele ran a classic info op against the United States, getting himself inside the cycle as a clean source. Robert Mueller should be ashamed of himself if he uses any of Steele’s dossier, or any information obtained via that dossier. That’s where our democracy stands at the moment.

     

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  • That Indictment: A Lot of Not Very Much

    February 16, 2018 // 5 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump




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  • Olympic Optimism from the North Korean Spy I Met

    February 12, 2018 // 17 Comments

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    Posted in: Trump



    Secretary of State Tillerson left open the possibility of Vice President Mike Pence meeting with North Korean officials alongside the Winter Olympic games. He would be the highest ranking American official ever, since North Korea was founded, to do so. At the same time, North Korea is to send its highest ranking official ever to the South, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state and president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Is this a long shot at an opening?

     

    It’s easy to be cynical, but I look at this from a unique position. See, I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun with a fanatical, patriotic North Korean spy and watched her choose to blink, and you haven’t. It’s why watching the run-up to the Olympics, with levels of cooperation and kinship unseen for years between the two Koreas, I find myself allowing optimism to peek in between the shades.

    The details must remain a bit sketchy but at one point during my years working for the State Department at the American Embassy in Seoul I found myself inside a cell of a foreign intelligence organization alone with a North Korean spy. I’ll call her Ms. Park here, but I have no idea if even her “real” name was real (other identity details altered below.) She’d been arrested for espionage. She was on a hunger strike.

    I was there because Ms. Park may have acquired American citizenship along her complex life journey and one of my jobs at the embassy was to look after the welfare of incarcerated American citizens. Ms. Park was trying to starve herself to death to avoid cooperating and it was my task to provide her the same assistance I would any other American in jail. It was a long shot, but my job was to convince Ms. Park not to die.

    Over a handful of visits, with a nurse employed by the embassy now with me, I watched Ms. Park starve herself to death. She was trained to do so. She took small sips of water, she explained, to keep her higher brain functions active enough to allow her version of logic to push back against the survival instinct. She was unshakable in her loyalty to her cause. She told me she would eventually begin to give up secrets if she lived long enough, and everything she devoted her life to said she should indeed starve herself to death to prevent that.

    I did not speak about politics, and Ms. Park came not to trust me, but to at least understand my role was not to pry information from her. So we spoke of family, mine at first to fill the air, then at one point, hers. Her son liked the elites’ amusement park he once had access to. There was a day when Ms. Park bought him shaved ice, some sweet flavor that reminded her of the fruits she ate in the west but which her son never tasted in real life. Even as the embassy nurse whispered to me Ms. Park’s vital signs were reaching a critical point and that we should schedule a second visit even that afternoon “in case,” I saw Ms. Park stare down the barrel of a rifle she held herself, and understand her duty. She asked for rice.

    Ms. Park is just one person, but she is exactly the kind of person you would least expect to change. She is one of the reasons I continue to believe there is a path that will not lead to war on the Korean Peninsula.

     

    The essence of North Korea is written into the national philosophy of juche, which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official confirmed Kim Jong Un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on negotiating forward from. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chance was lessened in March 2003 when a Saddam Hussein who had lost his weapons of mass destruction found his country invaded by the United States, and then lost in December 2003 when Muammar Qaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, only to find himself in 2011 deposed under American bombs.

    One Korea University professor argued Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Qaddafi’s fall. In Pyongyang’s view, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide would negotiate away his nukes in 2018 after that.

    The last serious attempt at finding a path forward with North Korea was in October 2000, when then Secretary of State Madeline Albright went to Pyongyang without preconditions. A flurry of quiet diplomatic activity followed (I was in the embassy in Seoul and saw it first-hand) as both sides began building the connective tissue, the working-level personal and bureaucratic ties essential to getting down to business; progress is hard to make when even small details have to rise to the national leadership. One outcome was a series of extraordinary family reunions between North and South, among relatives who had not seen each other since the 1950s. The reunions were major media events in the South.

    Enthusiasm from the American side dipped sharply after the election of George W. Bush, and the process collapsed completely in 2002 after Bush chucked North Korea into his “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. The last attempt to restart talks took place in February 2012, soon after Kim Jong Il passed away and Kim Jong Un, his son, took over North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang held limited discussions resulting in a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and other activities. The agreement fell apart following a (failed) North Korean satellite launch, and a later successful nuclear test in February 2013. Diplomacy has otherwise not seen much trying for the last five years.

     

    Why might there be hope now? Since 2013, North Korea’s ability to deliver more powerful weapons via more accurate missiles has grown. Through one lens, that increases the threat to the United States (Seoul, within range of overwhelming numbers of conventional weapons, is nonplussed; their destruction has been assured even prior to the North going nuclear.) Looking at the weapons development from Pyongyang’s perspective, however, offers a different picture: the more powerful weapons create a more realistic deterrent. To a regime that values survival at its core, that creates a very different starting point for negotiations than in 2000.

    The second factor is a long shot – Trump. Trump seems unworried about maintaining a consistent policy position. He favors showmanship, the Big Play. His conservative flank is covered. One can imagine Trump being convinced his legacy could be that of Nixon opening China; the tarnished president who nonetheless is remembered for changing history.

    The key lies in removing the precondition any talks be aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea, and in understanding diplomacy with North Korea is never going to be a straight line. That setbacks will occur cannot be a predetermined definition of failure. Among other complications, Kim Jong Un will need to work any progress with America past the hardliners in his government.

    Kim Jong Un is indeed the supreme ruler, but to imagine he rules without consultation from, at minimum, his generals, is simplistic. Sending the 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam as his representative to the Olympics is a significant choice; Kim has been a Communist Party member since the pre-WWII Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, has extensive overseas experience, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility inside the government. The U.S. has also carefully and quietly kept Kim Yong Nam off any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development.

    Despite that level of bureaucratic protection, Kim Jong Un will still need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. Perhaps not unlike Trump, who may be covering his own hand by sending Fred Warmbier, the father of student Otto Warmbier, who died after being incarcerated by Pyongyang and returning to the U.S. in a coma, to attend the Olympics alongside Pence.

     

    North Korea is a nuclear state. That is the starting point to any deconfliction on the Korean Peninsula, not the end goal. Finding peace under those conditions is a long shot, but sometimes those pay off.




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  • Oh Hell Yes the Nunes Memo Matters (But Not Why You Think It Does)

    February 10, 2018 // 6 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    California Congressman Devin Nunes’ memo details how the Department of Justice secured a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Many feel the memo raises questions about bias inside the FBI, and the legal and ethical use of a Trump opposition research dossier as justification for a FISA warrant. Others claim the memo is irrelevant, a dud.

     

    When you wave away all the partisan smoke, what is deeply worrisome is the Nunes memo confirms American intelligence services were involved in a presidential campaign and remain so in the aftermath. No more conspiracy theories. So forget what you “agree” with, and focus on what happened during the 2016 campaign.

    The FBI conducted an investigation, the first ever of a major party candidate in the midst of a presidential battle, and exonerated Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing over her private email server, a government-endorsed “OK” for her expected victory. No real investigation was conducted into the vast sums of money moving between foreign states and the Clinton Foundation, dead-ending those concerns to partisan media.

    A month before voting the Obama administration accused the Russian government of stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the leaked emails (which reflected poorly on Clinton) “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” The FBI swung again and said well maybe there was something to see in Clinton’s emails, buried on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. The CIA/NSA meanwhile leaked like cheap diapers throughout the campaign. Trump owes money to Russia. Trump’s computers communicate with Russia. The Russians have sexy kompromat on Trump. That the newly-elected president is literally a tool of Russian intelligence became a common element in the national conversation (John McCain on the Nunes memo release: “We are doing Putin’s job for him.”)

    Leave aside the question of what in all of the above is actually true. Maybe Clinton’s private email server exposed no secrets. Maybe Trump’s real estate ventures have dirty Russian money in them. Or maybe not, it is doubtful any of us will ever know. What is important is each of those actions by the intelligence community affected the course of the election. They may not have always shifted votes in the intended way, or there theoretically may have been no intention per se, but the bare naked fact is unlike any previous presidential election the intelligence community played an ongoing public role in who ended up in the White House, and now, for how long the elected president remains there.

     

    And of course the intelligence community was deep in the Steele dossier, the focal point of the Nunes memo. Christopher Steele is a former British intelligence officer with a long history of close work with his American counterparts. He was commissioned first by a conservative website to develop dirt (“opposition research”) on candidate Trump. Funding swiftly shifted to Clinton surrogates, who saw the thing through to being leaked to the FBI. Steele’s product, the dossier, is a collection of second-hand gossip, dangling suggestions of entanglements between Trump and shadowy Russians, and of course, the infamous pee tape. Nothing in the dossier has been confirmed. It might all be true, or none of it. We will likely never know.

    The FBI nonetheless embraced the dossier and morphed it from opposition research into evidence. Per the Nunes memo, the Steele dossier, and a “collaborating” article actually derived from the same information leaked by Steele to the author, then became part the legal justification for a FISA surveillance warrant issued against Trump associate Carter Page. A product of unclear reliability created and promoted via the opponent’s campaign abetted by the western intelligence community justified the demand to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

    Much will be made of how influential, or not, the Steele dossier was in obtaining the original FISA warrant, and whether or not its use was legal at all. The Nunes memo states recently “retired” FBI No. 2 Andrew McCabe confirmed no FISA warrant would have been sought without the Steele dossier; McCabe denies saying that during still-classified and still-unreleased testimony. Senior DOJ officials knew the dossier’s politics but left that information off their FISA application. Does any of that matter?

    We will never know. The Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act court works in secret. The standards are secret, the results and decisions are secret. None of us knows what matters to a FISA judge in rendering a decision to spy on an American campaign associate. Someone can release the so-called “underlying documents” (they’re typically dozens of pages long) DOJ used for the FISA application but without knowledge of FISA standards, those documents won’t be of much help. The apparatus of spying in America, including the FISA court, is widely supported and authority to spy was just extended with support from both parties.

    If you want to assert the FISA warrant on Page was apolitical, issued only to collect on his possible role as a Russian agent, and no strategy, financial, or campaign information was collected, or that if it was it was simply discarded, well, that’s a beneficent view of human nature, never mind a bizarrely generous level of trust in government. Yet even if the intent was righteous and the people involved lawful, the information is stored. Which person or agency has control of it today is not necessarily who will control it in the future; information is forever.

     

    Remember, too, the Nunes memo addresses only one FISA warrant on one person from October 2016; investigations into Trump, et al, had been ongoing well before that. We do not know, for example, what information formed the basis of the July 2016 investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos the Nunes memo mentions; it may have been passed from the Australians via U.S. intelligence. Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian persons were “inadvertently” monitored and later “unmasked” (and leaked) by Obama administration officials. Jeff Session’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were collected and leaked. The Nunes memo tells us then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr unofficially funneled additional material from Steele into DOJ; Ohr’s wife worked for the company that first commissioned the dossier. As yet unsubstantiated reports say Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners, a common arrangement on both sides to get around domestic laws limiting such work on one’s own citizens, such as when a FISA warrant can’t be obtained, or one does not want to leave a paper trail.

     

    If you’re fine with the U.S. government using paid-for opposition research to justify spying on persons connected to presidential campaign staff, then nothing further I can write will help you understand how worrisome this disclosure is. Except maybe this. Switch the candidate’s name you hate with the one you like. That means President Trump surveilling staff from the Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign after a dossier commissioned by the Republican party links them to China. You’d trust Trump, and every future president, with that, right?

    The involvement of the intelligence community as in the 2016 presidential campaign, clumsy and disorganized as it appears to have been, will be part of the next election, and the ones after that. If you’re in search of a Constitutional crisis, it lies waiting there. After all, when we let George W. Bush create, and Barack Obama greatly expand, the surveillance state, what did we think it would come to be used for?

     

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  • A Handy Definition of the “Deep State”

    February 6, 2018 // 11 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    I ran into this, from Caitlin Johnstone, and thought it worth sharing:

    The term “deep state” does not mean “Democrats and Never-Trumpers” as Republican pundits would have you believe, nor does the term refer to any kind of weird, unverifiable conspiracy theory. The deep state is in fact not a conspiracy theory at all, but simply a concept used in political analysis for discussing the undeniable fact that unelected power structures exist in America, and that they tend to form alliances and work together in some sense. There is no denying the fact that plutocrats, intelligence agencies, defense agencies and the mass media are both powerful and unelected, and there is no denying the fact that there are many convoluted and often conflicting alliances between them. All that can be debated is the manner and extent to which this is happening.

    The deep state is America’s permanent government, the U.S. power structures that Americans don’t elect. These power structures plainly have a vested interest in keeping America’s Orwellian surveillance structures in place, as evidenced by the intelligence community’s menacingly urgent demand for FISA renewal back in December. If there’s any thread to be pulled that really could make waves in the way Official Washington (hat tip to the late Robert Parry) operates, it is in the plot holes between the bipartisan scramble toward unconditional surveillance renewal and the highly partisan battle over exposing the abuse of those very powers.

    If we’re going to see a gap in the bars of our cages, that’s a great place to keep our eyes trained, so keep watching. Watch what happens in a partisan war where both parties have a simultaneous interest in revealing as little of the game as possible and exposing the other party. Things could get very interesting.



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  • What’s Next in Iraq?

    February 5, 2018 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq, Trump

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    The contours of Iraq post-Islamic State are becoming clearer. Did the strategy to defeat Islamic State succeed? Are the American wars in Iraq finally over? Who walks away the winner?


    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State on December 9, 2017. And while there will still be some fighting, the real war is over. Yet there were no parades, no statues pulled down, no “Mission Accomplished” moments. An event that might have once set front pages atwitter a few years ago in America wasn’t even worth a presidential tweet.

    That’s because in Washington there is little to celebrate. With the likelihood of spring elections in Iraq, what stands out is how absent American influence is. The two main candidates are current prime minister Abadi, and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both come from the same Shi’ite Dawa party, and both have close ties to Iran. The names should be familiar. Maliki was the Great American Hope in 2006, and again in 2010, to unite Iraq across Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish lines as the bulk of American occupation forces withdrew, while Abadi was the Great American Hope in 2014 to do the same as American troops flowed back to Iraq to fight Islamic State.

    As prime minister Maliki didn’t follow-through on the Surge in the end years of the American occupation, leaving the Sunnis at the mercy of his Shi’ite supporters. Maliki’s first action post-occupation — the very day after the last American combat troops withdrew — was to try and arrest his own Sunni vice president. In 2014, Maliki unleashed his army in Sunni Anbar Province, a move which drew Islamic State in to Iraq. American manipulations then replaced Maliki with Abadi in 2014.

    Yet despite high (American) hopes, Abadi made few efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi judiciary, military, and police forces, the minimum groundwork for a united Iraq. He did not create economic opportunities for Sunnis or deliver public services. Instead, Abadi created new fault lines, ossified old ones by further embracing Tehran, and sent Iranian-lead Shi’ite militias numbering some 120,000 tearing through the Sunni heartlands. Both Presidents Obama and Trump worked closely with Abadi to ultimately destroy Islamic State in Iraq, at the expense of the Iraqi Sunnis.


    The Obama-Trump strategy was medieval: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shi’ite Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq war of 2003-2011: there would be no political follow-on this round, no nation building, between the end of the fighting and the exit. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi politics, even if that meant an exclusionary Shi’ite government in Baghdad under Tehran’s wing.

    The walk-away policy was implemented, albeit less violently, to resolve for now the question of the Kurds. In September 2017, the Kurds voted for independence from Iraq, only to see their fate decided as Washington stood aside while Shi’ite militias pushed Kurdish forces from disputed regions, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. After decades of American promises of independence, the Kurds were left to salvage a small bit of pre-2003 autonomy from Baghdad where once full statehood stood within grasp. With American support, the Kurds blunted Islamic State in the darkest days of 2014. In 2018, in what some analysts call the “Twilight of the Kurds,” they no longer seem to have a place in Washington’s foreign policy.

    The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis. The United Nations was appalled by the mass execution of Sunni prisoners and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from Washington.

    Unlike the 2003-2011 war, when it spent $60 billion on the task, the United States does not intend on trying to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. Estimates suggest $100 billion is needed to rebuild the mostly Sunni areas destroyed, and to deal with the 2.78 million internally displaced Sunnis. Shi’ite Baghdad pleads lack of funds to help. Across two administrations Washington contributed only $265 million to reconstruction since 2014 (by comparison, America allotted $150 million in 2017 alone to financing arms sales to Iraq, one of the top ten global buyers of American weapons.) Other than plans for Kuwait to host a donors conference in February, the Sunnis are largely on their own, hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog.


    President Trump is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq entirely. A reduced force will stay to play Whack-a-Mole with any Islamic State resurgence, to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops, and to referee among the disparate groups in western Iraq and Syria the United States armed willy-nilly to help defeat Islamic State. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight Islamic State, but with that behind them, about all they have in common is mutual distrust and lots of guns. American troops perma-stationed inside Iranian-allied Iraq are a bit of a geopolitical oddity, but one Iran has likely already at least passively agreed to. Tehran has little to gain from a fight over some American desert base real estate right now, when their prize is the rest of Iraq.


    Over five administrations and 26 years, the United States paid a high price – some 4,500 American dead and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent – for what will have to pass as a conclusion. Washington’s influence in Baghdad is limited and relations with Iran are in shambles under a Trump administration still focused backwards on the Obama-era Iran nuclear accords. The last quarter century of Iraq wars thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces, creating a new Lebanon out of the shell of what was once Iraq. As long as the Trump administration insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have few ways to exert influence. Other nations in the Middle East will diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this.

    A long fall from the heady days of 2003, when America lit up the region like the Fourth of July to remake the Middle East. But the problems proved impossible to solve and so America washed its hands of that, for this. And if any of this does presage some future American conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy.

     




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  • American Immigration: We Need a Merit-Based System

    February 4, 2018 // 4 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State


    The American immigration system based on family reunification is broken. A merit/points-based system can fix it.

    Nearly alone in the industrialized world, the U.S. has a patchwork of immigration laws and policies which fail the national interest while simultaneously failing many of the people seeking to immigrate here. What to do about immigration is a national policy decision (like defense spending, environmental rules, and taxes), not a global humanitarian program (that’s refugees.) The answer is not less immigration. Every person who brings their skills and labor contributes to growth, and everyone who acquired skills abroad did so at no cost to the U.S. In a global economy, that represents a magnificent advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains.

    Dollars and cents? Immigrant-owned businesses in 2014 generated more than $775 billion in sales and paid out more than $126 billion in payroll. Immigrant-owned businesses collectively created four million of the jobs today in the United States. Immigrants and their children founded 40% of Fortune 500 companies, which collectively generated $4.2 trillion in revenue in 2010. And you don’t need another list of immigrant celebrities, scientists, and business leaders.

    But what if we can do better, a lot better?

    Through the end of the 19th century, America essentially had no immigration law. The country was huge, land was available for the taking, and the need for unskilled workers seemed bottomless. The waves of Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, and Chinese came from every, well, shithole across Europe and beyond. They entered an America where New York City was a center of light manufacturing and the source of more than half of all ready-made clothing, and the vast midwest was blanketed with family farms and steel plants greedy for workers. This system gave way as the first real immigration laws targeted the Chinese, no longer needed to build the railways out west, and, following WWI, Italians and eastern European Jews who were considered “inferior.” Racism played a significant role, but it dovetailed more than coincidentally with an economy that was shrinking (ultimately, the Great Depression) and demanding more skilled workers.

    The years following WWII saw a massive change in immigration law. In the booming post-war economy, it was believed there was room for everyone again, and old racial wrongs were righted by removing national quotas and emphasizing family unification. Most post-war immigrants, unlike those of the great waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were the relatives of earlier immigrants. Little attention was paid to who these people were, what education and skills they had and, most significantly, what the needs of the American economy were in comparison. The majority of available slots were given to family ties, not persons independently seeking to work in America like our great grandfathers. This is the system in place today.

    Family reunification has some no-brainers, such as relatively easy entry for the spouses, children, and parents of American citizens. The complications arise in the preference categories. These include adult unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and Green Card holders, and their families. Also allowed to immigrate are the married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their families, and the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. Once those people become legal, they can then file for immigration for their next generation of relatives. One immigrant can sponsor dozens of relatives, who in turn can then sponsor dozens — chain immigration.
    There are two massive problems with this system.

    Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and the Dominican Republic are the most prolific sending countries to the U.S., creating a statistical snowball; more Chinese immigrants means more Chinese relatives to follow. Because of that snowball effect, and because Congress places strict numerical limits on the number of most family reunification-based immigrants, the waiting lines grow exponentially. In fairness to other nations with fewer emigrants, Congress created country-by-country limits (de facto quotas.) Those limits have become unmanageable under the first-come, first-served system. The most-backed up is the processing of siblings of Americans from the Philippines. That process is only now taking those applications (“priority date”) first filed in 1994. Applicants literally die waiting for their turn. Others see the long wait and jump the line, entering the U.S. illegally.

    How many people are we talking about? For all of the family unification immigrant visas, in 2017, about 466,585 people, out of a total immigrant pool of 559,536.
    That left 23,814 visas for people who immigrated to the U.S. based solely on their skills, education, and talent — merit. So out of more than half a million souls, only 23,814 were admitted based on what they bring to the U.S. Everyone else can be a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, or, randomly, a rocket scientist.

    The core problem with the family reunification system is the primary qualification to legally immigrate is simply that family tie; are you the sibling of an American? Welcome. So America gets the drunk brothers alongside the physicist sister. It’s a crap shoot. There is no connection to America’s economic needs. The family reunification system is a 19th-century legal hangover.

    It actually is worse than just the numbers when it comes to seeking the best and brightest from around the world. Of the 20,000 some merit based immigrants, in 2017 almost 7,000 of them were designated only as “skilled,” meaning they had only two years of training or work experience, and did not require a college degree. There are even a handful of merit-based visas reserved for unskilled workers.

    More? Merit-based immigration is largely based on first-come, first-serve grappling for those limited spaces. There is nothing in the system to prioritize a scientist working on something critical to the U.S. versus someone educated but in a field already overcrowded. It all depends on who files the paperwork first.

    The American family unification system, with its small number of merit-based visas tagging along, is near unique in the industrialized world. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand use primarily a merit system based on “points.” Based on national needs, an applicant with no relatives in Canada will accrue points based on education (Canada awards 25 points for a Master’s, only five for a high school diploma), language ability (24 points toward immigration up north if you are fluent in English and French), and job skills. But you may not need a master’s in computer technology, for Canada: they’ll take you if you’re a rocket scientist, but they’ll also take you if you are a tar sands miner willing to live five years in the unsettled west. Think you’re good enough for Canada? Start the points process here.

    The present system fails so badly that it remains a statiscal miracle any good comes out of it at all. The small number of merit-based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, and the family-based system is backlogged. How can the U.S. bring it’s immigration system into the 21st century?

    Step one is an emotional reckoning. We all know your grandfather came here with nothing and built his American Dream; mine, too. We also know many people rightly fear their jobs are endangered by immigration. It is time for America to move past the falsehoods and full-on hate that drives too much of the conversation. Same for the myths that largely unfettered immigration is so enshrined in the American story as to be untouchable.

    America must then move away from its over-emphasis on family-based immigration. Eliminate certain categories, or more sharply limit them. Then, remake the current merit system into a points system directly tied to economic needs. Need more electrical engineers than web developers? Prioritize. Change the priorities as needed, and move resources from the family-based side to the points side so that cases are processed fast enough that demand and supply match up. There are various proposals long these lines being put forth by Republicans in Congress that don’t cut immigration, just change it.
    It is hard to see why this seems so complicated. If the U.S. can draw the global best and brightest instead of hoping someone’s brother falls into the slot, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

     

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  • The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?

    January 30, 2018 // 14 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump


    The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of Books, CNN, The Intercept, CNBC, The Nation, Bill Moyers, Salon, and the NYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

    The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?


    Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, says yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

    So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.

    We might instead look at the actual decisions Trump has made, and those of his predecessors. One president used nuclear weapons to decimate two cities worth of innocents, and a set of presidents squandered hundreds of thousands of American lives watering Vietnam with blood. Ronald Reagan was famously caught over an open mic saying he was going to start bombing the Soviet Union in the next few minutes. Another president lied about WMDs to launch an invasion of Iraq in part to avenge his dad. The same guy mocked North Korea’s leader as a pygmy. Obama said he “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North, knowing that meant Armageddon. Historical psychiatrists say half of our past presidents may have suffered some sort of mental illness. If Trump is dangerous as president, he seems to have company.

    But how can we know? Trump will never voluntarily undergo a mental competency exam, though courts can order people to submit. But even Lee, who met with Congressional representatives to press the case Trump is insane, admits this is unlikely to happen. “Many lawyer groups have actually volunteered to file for a court paper to ensure that the security staff will cooperate with us,” Lee said. “But we have declined, since this will really look like a coup, and while we are trying to prevent violence, we don’t wish to incite it through, say, an insurrection.”


    There doesn’t seem much of a case. Still, people arguing Trump is insane and must be removed from office point to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as just what the doctor ordered.

    The Constitution did not originally lay out (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6) what happens if a president dies or becomes incapacitated. It was just assumed the Vice President would serve as “Acting President.” The 25A, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created the first set of rules for this sort of situation.

    The 25A has four short subsections. If the presidency goes vacant (for example, fatal heart attack), the vice president becomes president. If the vice-presidency goes vacant, the president chooses a new VP. If the president knows he’ll be incapacitated (unable to carry out his job, for example, due to scheduled surgery), he can voluntarily and temporarily assign his duties to the vice president. If the president is truly incapacitated (unconscious after an assassination attempt) and can’t voluntarily assign away his duties, the VP and cabinet can do it for him, with a two-thirds majority confirming vote of the House and Senate.

    In the minds of the “Trump is Insane” crowd what matters most is that never-used fourth subsection, the incapacitation clause. People claim because Trump is insane he is unable to carry out his duties, and so Mike Pence, et al, must step in and transfer power away from him today. Trump would legally exist in the same status as Grandpa Simpson in the nursing home, and Pence would take over. Among other problems, this thinking imagines the 25A’s legally specific term “unable” means the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit, but still able, to drive. The 25A only refers to the first case.


    The use of the 25A to dethrone Trump is the kind of thing non-experts with too much Google time can convince themselves is true. But unlike much of the Constitution, where understanding original intent requires the Supreme Court and a close reading of the Federalist Papers, the 25A is modern legislation. We know the drafters’ intent was an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt. The 25A premises the president will almost always invoke succession himself, either by dying in office, or by anticipating he will be unable to discharge his duties, as in 2007 when George W. Bush went under anesthesia for his annual colonoscopy and signed things over to his vice president for a few hours.

    The reason the 25A is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out against his will, his unfitness specifically a result of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The people who wrote the 25A did not intend it to be an alternate method of impeachment or a do-over for an election.

    It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25A wrote a back door into the Constitution that would allow a group of government officials, many of whom in the Cabinet were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president who they simply think has turned out to be bad at his job.

    Accusations of mental illness are subjective, unprovable in this case, and alarmist, perfect fodder to displace the grinding technicalities of Russiagate. Denouncing one’s political opponents as crazy was a tried and true Soviet and Maoist tactic, and a movie trope where the youngsters try to get the patriarch shut away to grab his fortune. We fear the mentally ill, and psychiatric name calling against Trump invokes that fear. “The 25th Amendment would require, for mental incapacity, a major psychotic break,” said one former Harvard Law School professor. “This is hope over reality. If we don’t like someone’s politics we rail against him, we campaign against him, we don’t use the psychiatric system against him. That’s just dangerous.”


    People saying the president is mentally ill and the 25A is the cure know they have no rational basis for their position. They know the 25A is not a work-around for impeachment proceedings they are unlikely to see. They are aware they are unethically trying to medicalize bad leadership, damning it with the taint of mental illness. They know Mike Pence and Trump’s own cabinet will never sign off on a power transfer, and they don’t want Pence in the Oval Office anyway. They know this is all kabuki, liberal fan fiction, a shadow play. The talk of mental illness and the 25A is simply political sabotage ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.

    Trump’s time in office is finite, but what happens around him will outlast his tenure. It is dangerous to mess with the very fundamentals of our democracy, where the people choose the president, replacing that with a kabal called into session by pop psychologists. This is an attack on the process at its roots; you yokels voted for the wrong guy so somebody smarter has to clean up.




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  • Movie Review: The Post, or, History as 2018 Wants It to Be

    January 19, 2018 // 11 Comments

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    Posted in: Post-Constitution America, Trump



    Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. It’s a whimper of a movie, throwing bad history on the screen to make a clumsy but ever-so 2018 political point.

    So how do you make a two hour drama out of a decision? There are only so many scenes you can shoot, though Spielberg tries them all, of The Suits saying “You can’t publish!” while Meryl and Tom emote “We must!” Well, you more or less override real history in favor of a Lesson, whitewash a decision made in part to make the Post look better against its competition of the time the Washington Star, and sideline the real hero, Daniel Ellsberg.


    A bit of history. Ellsberg first leaked the Pentagon Papers exclusively to the New York Times; despite what “The Post” claims, the Washington newspapers were far too provincial to qualify as full peers. The Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War, 1945 to 1968, prepared under the order of Kennedy-Johnson Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and the Papers were his act of contrition. Times’ reporters spent three months reading and verifying the documents. Simultaneously, the Times set its legal team to preparing the now classic First Amendment defense it knew would be needed.

    The risks were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act (though only Ellsberg was actually charged as such.) The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper had indeed broken the law. It was only at that point the Washington Post actually obtained an excerpt from the Pentagon Papers.


    The movie brushes past the Times’ rigorous fact checking, raw courage, and masterful First Amendment legal defense to focus on the Post’s big risk: the paper was about to offer its stock publicly, and problems with the government might hurt share prices. Nixon shut down the Post’s publishing anyway after only two days, and the paper went to court. The Post’s lawyers made no First Amendment case, more afraid of being found in contempt of the injunction against the Times than the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court rolled their briefs into the Times’ case, and the landmark victory for the First Amendment was issued as New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. The Post did not.


    But hell, you’re Steven Spielberg. You have the True Guardians of Liberal-Lite, Blue America’s mom and dad, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. What does history have to do with your movie anyway? It all begs the question of why Spielberg chose to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers, which is really the story of the New York Times with its spine still in place, via a secondary player, the Washington Post?

    “The Post” has no real interest in the Pentagon Papers except as a plot device, almost an excuse needed to make this movie. “The Post” simply takes a now universally praised, and thus middle America safe (for the same reason, “Saving Private Ryan” was set in the Good War instead of god-awful Vietnam) episode of journalism as a launching point to attack what it sees as the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken a free press. Today’s WaPo, under the ownership of one of America’s richest liberal capitalists, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has refashioned itself as the newspaper of #Resistance, declaring in undergraduate essay level pseudo Orwellian prose its motto to be “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

    By setting the story back in ye olde timey 1971, Spielberg can appropriate Daniel Ellsberg, instead of Obama-era whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who still hover near to traitor status for many. Tom Hanks himself gave the game away, calling Ellsberg a hero in an interview while refusing to characterize Snowden at all.

    What was clearly the right thing to do to help bring down (Trump stand-in) Richard Nixon can become all morally ambiguous when Obama is in the hot seat, hence the historical setting. The Obama administration charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, including Nixon’s. But by more or less bypassing the core issue both whistleblowers and real journalists stare down — there are higher goals than obedience to government — Spielberg ducks the real lesson in favor of an easy shot at the current administration.

    “I think our country has a love-hate relationship with whistleblowers,” attorney Jesselyn Radack, who helped represent Manning, Snowden and, full disclosure, me, told The American Conservative. “I wish I could be optimistic about ‘The Post’ shifting the needle of public opinion. However, it’s a hopelessly mismatched tug of war when the entire apparatus of the U.S. government — whether led by Obama or Trump — holds one end of the rope.”


    Using the old Washington Post as the launching point for what is essentially just a trope-ish Op-Ed (Freedom of the Press, good! Republican Presidents, bad! Journos, Indiana Jones!) also allows Spielberg to show 1971 exactly as 2018 wants to remember it. Meryl and Tom, playing Katherine and Ben, are perfect role models for how men and women should work together, respectful and considerate, with no mansplaining or inappropriate remarks to be found.

    Meanwhile, the newsroom is era-appropriate white and male, but everyone is on their best behavior for the camera; no fanny slapping, no one addressing the clerical staff as “honey” or demanding coffee. The New York Times of 1971 was too male, and even Spielberg couldn’t shoe horn a female protagonist into that picture, never mind create a hit-you-over-the-head subplot of Katherine Graham morphing from Betty Crocker into a fierce, persistent 2018 role model for all women and girls (one of the later shots in the film shows Streep leaving the Supreme Court to gently part a crowd of adoring young women, adream in halo-like glow at her proto-feminism). There is no subtlety to the message. Spielberg might as well have costumed Streep wearing a pink pussy hat in the boardroom scenes.


    Nobody expects movies to be 100% historically accurate, but “The Post” twists facts to present a battle that really wasn’t fought this way at all. The film is an effective piece of polemic, taking full advantage of the skills of some of America’s most talented practitioners, who one imagines believe they made a Movie That Matters For Our Times. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, couldn’t get her elected, so they did the next best thing. They created a little confection likely to win multiple Oscars and play forever on Amazon Prime beating up the guy she lost to.



    Full Disclosure: Dan Ellsberg is a hero of mine.

     

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  • Martin Luther King Day: Lady Liberty is Black

    January 15, 2018 // 42 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    The United States will release released a gold coin featuring Lady Liberty as a Black woman on this day in 2017, the first time she has been depicted as anything other than white on the nation’s currency.

    “Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage,” stated a spokesperson from the Mint. “But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”

    Good for everyone. Only the most dark hearted could be upset that a fictional character is represented in any particular way. This can’t be bad.


    …Unless we acknowledge that America is apparently satisfied with “having conversations,” raising awareness about race, and various other symbolic gestures. The Academy Awards are again coming up, and the Golden Globes just passed, and lots of people will be keeping track of how many are given out to non-white men and making much of the tally, their “much” depending on which side the scale tips. Gestures of all types are all good enough on their own, but they never really affect much. The issues of race stretch back to the Founders, well before we elected a Black president and then elected one who throws racist statements around on Twitter. We’re still dealing with the same questions.


    The same day the new liberty coin was announced in 2017, the Department of Justice released a terrifying report describing the failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, saying excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos. The report was released as Chicago faces skyrocketing violence, with murders are at a 20-year high, and a deep lack of trust among the city’s Black and white residents. And yeah, of course, the police force is very, very white.

    Where was this report a year ago, or eight years ago, or ten years ago? Because the implication here is that the Obama administration issued this in its final days, allowing it (and not any solution or progress) to be part of his legacy. Suspecting Trump will not make dealing with these issues a priority, Obama’s DOJ can take credit for “starting a conversation” about Chicago while walking away from the heavy lifting of helping fix it. DOJ might as well have issued a commemorative coin in lieu of the report.


    We all know the rest: 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Once convicted, Black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. You can find similar numbers for poverty (nearly a quarter of blacks are living in poverty, almost the same as in 1976), unemployment (double that of whites), life expectancy, and voter disenfranchisement.

    Clearly over the last seven decades somebody could have fixed some of that. It can’t all be impossible.

    Now, there has been some progress. America wrapped up formal slavery in 1865, only 76 years after the Bill of Rights. And then it was only another 100 some years before the Civil Rights laws tried hard to grant Blacks the rights the 1865 victory gave them. We don’t have lynchings and killings much anymore (though the Chicago PD keeps its hand in) and places that wish to discriminate against Blacks have to do it much more subtlety.

    I’m not making light of suffering, but I am using sarcasm to show how angry I am about lack of real progress. We seem content to see presence as progress — first Black major leaguer, first Black Supreme Court Justice, first Black _____, first Black president. Again, there is nothing bad there, but now that the top box has been checked, what happens next?

    In other words, we get Martin Luther King day as a Federal holiday while at the same time we don’t get the values King embodied. There you go. As one person put it “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems.” Change is not organic; it must be made to happen.

    It is hard to come to any conclusion other than we as a society just don’t care. There are so many excuses (he was blocked by the Republicans, they’re still a tiny minority in Congress, the media, etc.) but even America’s Black president failed hard to make much of a real difference. We seem satisfied with symbolic gestures, blowing them out of proportion while the real problems sit in plain sight, unattended. What people will characterize over the next four years as sliding backwards on racial progress seems more like business as usual, albeit without the eloquent speeches.




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  • Here’s Some Cocoa, America. Tell Me What You’re So Afraid Of.

    January 14, 2018 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump



    Here’s what I’m afraid of. While fear has always been a tool of the vested interests to retain power, make money, and keep us under control, things may be slipping off the rails. The basic political post-war strategy of the United States power block has metastasized. The old fears deployed – the Commies, the Terrorists – were reliably a fire only a few key people could easily feed fuel into, or cool down, as needed. There was an element of control, evil and insidious, but one that maintained a balance. After all, you want enough fear to make people compliant but no so much that they end up chasing each other with pitchforks. Or driving cars through crowds of protesters.

    It is too easy now for too many people to put fuel into the fire. The establishment media, which once thrived on trading information for viewers, now trades on promoting anxiety. Confirmations of our fears no longer show up in scratchy black and white only when the president addresses the nation. They rocket 24/7, unfiltered and unfettered, tailored to match what scares us most. Then we retweet them to like-minded others, to validate our fears and form bonded communities. These are deep waters; imagine an episode of Black Mirror where a device that algorithmically learns your deepest fears falls into the wrong hands.

    There’s a history to all this. We first got really scared just as we were emerging as the predominant power on the planet, armed with the world’s only atomic bomb. It seems an odd set of circumstances to have been frightened in, more like one where we would have sat back and enjoyed ourselves. Yet we near-demanded a succession of presidents build the most massive national security state ever known to make us feel safe.

    We were instructed to be afraid of all sorts of stuff — communists in government and Hollywood, domino theories, revolutionary movements, a whole basket of Bond villains. Those who supported peace were labeled as working for the enemy. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do — distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said — was widely supported because we were afraid what might happen otherwise. Most people now realize the fear was overblown. Almost every American who died from the Cold War died in a fight we picked, inflamed, or dove blindly into. Cancer and car accidents took more lives than Dr. Strangelove. Fear justified terrible actions in our name.

    Then we got really scared following September 11, 2001, more than we ever were of the Russians. The terrorists lived among us. They were controlled by masterminds, simultaneously unpredictable and devious plotters playing the long game. They could turn our children into jihadis via MySpace. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do — distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said — was widely supported because we were afraid what might happen otherwise. Some people now realize the fear was overblown. Diabetes and ladder falls took more lives than Bin Laden.

    For a long time we’ve been acting like a shelter dog when the Bad Man comes into the room. The difference is that we were mostly afraid of the same thing, a mass driven by anxiety more or less in the same direction, a straight line that could not be anything but purposeful.

    The nasty twist for 2018 is we live in a world of mainstream media with barely screened ideological bias, backed up by social media of barely contained mental stability. At the same time, we are ever more diverse and equally ever more separated, divided into a thousand incommunicado sub-reddits. It isn’t practical anymore for us to have common fears.

    Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Exist in this state long enough and you end up with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the inability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Imagine a whole country that way trying to make good decisions, where fear trumps rational thinking.

    Looking at a blog post from a few years ago about what we were afraid of then, there are some familiar names. Putin was going on to invade Europe and Kim Jong Un was going to start a war over a Seth Rogin comedy called The Interview. But there were no mainstream claims the president was unfit at his core; people who feared that were pushed aside as conspiracy theorists, crazy themselves, and made fun of as “birthers.” There was no widespread anxiety democracy was teetering; people who talked about coups and the Reichstag burning were mocked on reality TV as preppers. There was a kind of consensus on what to be afraid of we subscribed to in various degrees of earnestness.

    Now there is a fear for everyone. We’re afraid Trump’ll start a war with North Korea (Kim is the sane one). We’re also afraid he won’t start a war and they’ll get us first (Kim is the crazy one.) We’re afraid Trump’s a Russian spy slipped into the White House (end of democracy) and we’re afraid the Democrats are using Mueller to overturn a legitimate election (end of democracy.) We’re worried the fascist government is taking away free speech and we’re worried the government isn’t doing enough to suppress free speech to stop hate. There are too many guns for us to be safe and not enough guns to protect us. Elect more women or women’s rights are finished. If we do elect more women (or POC, LGBTQ) the rest of us are finished.

    Bad things no longer just don’t happen, they just haven’t happened yet, and there is never a time when we can exhale. So while the story used to be the tamping down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the headline now is a mentally ill Trump might just push the nuclear button anyway, maybe even tonight (better check Twitter.) Whatever matters to you — transgender toilet rights, abortion, guns, religion — is under lethal attack and you are not just to help decide how we live in a plurality, but to determine whether we survive at all. It is always condition yellow, fight or flight. Fear is primitive; it doesn’t matter what we fear, as long as we remain afraid.

    Trump is not the demagogue you fear, just a cruder version of what has been the norm for decades. The thing to be scared of is what emerges after him. As such, there is still time. His bizarre ascension to the world’s most powerful office could become the argumentum ad absurdum that pulls the curtain back, Oz-like, on the way fear has been used to manipulate us. The risk is Trump may also represent a wake up call of a different sort, to even worse and much smarter people, who will see the potential to cross the line from manipulation into exploitation (the real burning of the Reichstag scenario), from gross but recognizable stasis into chaos.

    Frightened enough, people will accept, if not demand, extreme and dangerous solutions to problems whose true direness exists mostly within their anxieties – remember the way fear of invasion following Pearl Harbor led us to unlawfully imprison American citizen shopkeepers and farmers of Japanese origin? Now that’s something to really be afraid of.

     

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  • Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

    January 2, 2018 // 66 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Trump



    America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

    Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.


    Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

    The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

    Prior to the ‘Storm, the U.S. supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America’s post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called “a spontaneous burst of pride.” There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!

    Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn’t all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with U.S. imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton’s tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the U.S. dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.


    Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

    On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America’s own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.

    Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush’s invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush’s planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“shock and awe”) Bush declared victory for the first time — Mission Accomplished! — only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.

    It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.


    Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

    Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

    Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.

    The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.

    The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the U.S. held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.

    Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State’s territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.


    We Won! Sort of.

    Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.

    The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the U.S. abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.

    The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.

    This was finally a war the U.S. knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of U.S. tax dollars allotted to the task.

    The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no “Mission Accomplished” moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.


    The Price We Paid in Iraq

    Tweetable version: The last quarter century of Iraq Wars (from Desert Storm 1991 to the present) thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces. As long as the U.S. insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have no way short of war to exert any influence, a very weak position. Other nation-states in the Middle East will move to diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. Regional politics, not American interests, will drive events.

    After five administrations and 26 years the price the United States paid for what will have to pass as a victory conclusion is high. Some 4,500 American dead, millions killed on the Iraqi side, and $7.9 trillion taxpayer dollars spent.

    The U.S. sacrificed long-term allies the Kurds and their dreams of a homeland to avoid a rift with Baghdad; the dead-end of the Kurdish independence referendum vote this autumn just created a handy date for historians to cite, because the Kurds were really done the day their usefulness in fighting Islamic State wrapped up. Where once pundits wondered how the U.S. would chose a side when the Turks and Kurds went to war both armed with American weapons, it appears the U.S. could care less about what either does over the disputed borderlands they both crave.

    The big winner of America’s Iraq War is Iran. In 2017, Iran has no enemies on either major border (Afghanistan, to the east, thanks again to the United States, is unlikely to reconstitute as a national-level threat in anyone’s lifetime) and Iraq is now somewhere between a vassal state and a neutered puppet of Tehran.

    About their rivals in Saudi Arabia, again there is only good news for Iran. With the Sunnis in Iraq hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog (and Iranian-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently to remain in power), Saudi influence is on the wane. In the broader regional picture, unlike the Saudi monarchs, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one. With its victory in Iraq, stake in Syria, and friends in Lebanon, Iran has pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean at very low cost. If it was a stock, you’d want to buy Iran in 2018.


    The War to Make All Wars

    Going forward, Trump is unlikely to pull many troops out of Iraq, having seen the political price Obama paid for doing so in 2011. The troops will stay to block the worst of any really ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and to referee among the many disparate groups (Peshmerga, Yazidi, Turkmen, the Orwellian-named/Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, along with animated militias and factions of all flavors) who the U.S. armed willy-nilly to defeat ISIS.

    The U.S. put a lot of weapons on to the battlefield and a reckoning is feared. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight ISIS, but with that behind them, about all they still have in common is mutual distrust. There is zero chance of any national cohesion, and zero chance of any meaningful power-sharing by Baghdad. U.S. goals include keeping a lid on things so no one back home starts looking for someone to blame in the next election cycle, wondering what went wrong, “Who lost Iraq?” and asking what we should be doing about it. How well the U.S. will do at keeping things in line, and the long term effects of so many disparate, heavily-armed groups rocketing around greater Mesopotamia, will need to be seen.

    U.S. troops perma-stationed in Iraq will also be a handy bulwark against whatever happens next in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison parts of western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power, and to keep Jordan from overreacting to the increased Iranian influence.

    Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.


    Empire

    In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

    More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something something buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

    The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.


    The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

    More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

    Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?




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  • Almost a Year of Trump: Where Things Stand

    December 27, 2017 // 27 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    I awoke this morning to find it was not Judgement Day but simply morning.


    A little cloudy, might have some snow later. Things looked pretty normal. I ran the usual checks to make sure I hadn’t awoken in some alternate reality, that I had not slept through a time vortex and risen in a world run by super-intelligent apes, that sort of thing. Nope, regular everything. The milk in the fridge that was a little on edge yesterday morning was kinda ripe today.


    Trump’s been in office for six almost a year and everything is… sorta normal. He’s a crappy president, pretty much as we expected. I don’t see he’s done much good, but on the other hand looking over what the media, academics, and those who speak for us all, Colbert, Meyers, Samantha Bee, and George Takei have been predicting would have gone down by now, all and all things are not so bad.


    — No nuclear wars.

    — No wars with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Same wars Bush and Obama started or escalated still going strong.

    — No diplomatic breakdown because of Taiwan. No change in U.S. “Two China Policy.”

    — NATO and alliances with Australia, Japan, etc., intact.

    — No mass resignations among government employees. CIA, NSA, and State Department still open for business.

    — The people the media has been non-stop predicting would be fired/quit/indicted — Reince, McMaster, Mattis, Spicer, Ivanka, DeVos, Kushner, Mueller, Sessions, Tillerson, et al — are all mostly still around.

    — Trump has not annexed the Sudetenland.

    — No coups.

    — 1st Amendment, and others, still nicely in place.

    — No impeachment, no invocation of Emoluments Clause, no use of the 25th Amendment, no formal charges of treason.

    — No roundups of POC, women, journalists, or LGBTQ people. Deportations are still below Obama-era headcount of 2.5 million deported, highest under any presidency.

    — Stock market did not crash. Doing well, actually.

    — No psychological break down by Trump leading to anarchy, war, etc.

    — No signs of capitulation to Putin. We still own Alaska.

    — U.S. justice system and courts still open and functioning.

    — Absolutely nothing has changed regarding abortion rights, whatever the f*ck our healthcare system is, marriage equality… nope, steady state.


    In the interest of presenting a balanced view of events, here is a hysterical rebuttal to the points made above:

    It’s too early! OMG, it has only been six about a year. How’s the Kool-Aid nazi lover? As a white man of privilege who isn’t gay what do you know anyway about suffering, so f*ck you. The Resistance has held Trump back for now by posting on Facebook, but what about tomorrow?!? Luckily we marched with pussy hats or things would have been worse. You don’t know how bad it is because most of the changes are hidden. America’s prestige abroad is trashed and Angela Merkel is leading the Free World! Putin’s playing 3-D chess and just waiting to make his move. Any day now Robert Mueller is going to announce ____ and the sh*t will come down. We are nasty, fierce, persistent, and have excellent vocabularies. And did you see what anonymous sources told the NYT today? At least Dr. Who is a woman, so that means Hillary really won, doesn’t it?




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  • More Reasons Why There Will Not Be War with North Korea

    December 26, 2017 // 16 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Trump



    Three days after offering to talk to North Korea without preconditions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed course, insisting – as President Donald Trump has – the North must first stop its nuclear threats. As he backs away from the table, are we closer to war?


    Trump speaks of “fire and fury.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says the North’s nuclear program is “the most destabilizing development in the post-World War II period.” John Brennan, the former CIA director, estimates the odds of war at 25%. Senator Lindsey Graham says there’s a 30% chance the U.S. will launch a nuclear first strike. The Council on Foreign Relations sees it closer to 50%.

    The idea that war with North Korea is a near-term inevitability is normalized for many. But exactly what calculus is necessary to take Trump, et al, at face value and believe war is coming? On the other hand, what line of thinking suggests the threats are merely a blowhard throwing some Grade-A tough guy meat to his base?

    If one believes North Korea holds nuclear weapons simply as a deterrent, a defense against attack by the United States as happened with Iraq and Libya after they denuclearized, there is no need for America to go to war. The North Koreans won’t use theirs unless we use ours first. It is a classic example of what kept the Cold War from going full-hot.

    The history of North Korea, embodied in its national philosophy of juche, is about survival, keeping the regime alive. The Kim family has been remarkably good at doing just that since 1948. Unlike Cuba, they economically survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. They suffered total war, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. They haven’t sought reunification by force with the South since 1950, even as stronger and weaker American presidents came and went.

    There is no rational argument why North Korea would destroy itself with the pointless first-use of nuclear weapons against the overwhelming power of the U.S.. If you were the general briefing Kim Jong Un on the risk versus gain of the offensive use of nukes, try and figure out how you’d pitch national suicide as a possible up side. The weapons are defensive. North Korea can’t be the one that starts the war.


    Over in Washington, the only way to believe Trump’s threats are real is to believe the North, in spite of everything you just read, would somehow see its way to using its weapons offensively, i.e., to attack South Korea as part of an attempt at reunification. Only then is a pre-emptive strike justified as self-defense. As part of America’s act of self-defense, potentially millions of Koreans, alongside hundreds of thousands of Japanese, as well as persons on Guam, maybe Hawaii, would die.

    And the strike by America would need to come soon, before they get us first. Sound familiar? This was the rationale used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq — Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, we were told, and it would be fatal to wait for him to use them against us. “Who wants the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?” then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned in 2002. “How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat?”

    The trick was that it was almost certain the Bush administration knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction in 2002, and they definitely knew even during Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam did not use his chemical or biological weapons.

    It is the latter point that’s worth exploring. Saddam didn’t use his chem/bio weapons because the other side would then have no option but to retaliate in kind. In the case of Saddam, as with North Korea, the disparity in firepower with the United States meant total destruction. The only way to win – survive – is not to play the game.


    For the United States to decide on a first strike against North Korea the risk is beyond disproportionate to any possible gain. In a “miracle strike” every U.S. weapon would land perfectly on top of every North Korean target, including the American nukes needed to reach deep into the living rock of the mountains that protect the most important sites. This best case scenario would still leave North Korea under a radioactive cloud, which, given predictable weather patterns, would spread to Seoul and Tokyo. North Koreans not killed outright would trigger a humanitarian crisis unheard of in modern times. And the 1950’s Korean War offers a clear indication of how China would have to respond to an attack near its border, never mind a zombie apocalypse in the form of millions of starving North Koreans.

    And even that best case scenario is fully theoretical, because as any military planner will tell you, a “perfect” strike is impossible. Any American first-use plan includes at least a handful of lucky shots by the North (imagine one of those doomsday shots landing in Los Angeles), plus the activation of sleeper cell special forces almost certainly already in place in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

    On top of the actual destruction, it is unclear if the global economic system would survive nuclear war, if South Korea and Japan could remain American allies if Seoul and Tokyo are aglow, if China would blithely continue to hold their American government debt and not purposefully trigger a crisis on Wall Street, or if any president, especially one already hated by about half the country, could explain away a radioactive Los Angeles was the price of safety from an even worse possible North Korean attack of the future. And those thousands of American troops immolated on their bases in Korea and Japan, sorry about that, hope that won’t negatively influence any votes in 2020.

    If you were briefing the president, could you find the gain in that Strangelovian scenario to balance the risk? We’d certainly get more than our hair mussed up. You’d probably instead say what one person who might actually talk with the president really did say. Rear Admiral Michael Dumont, the vice-director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained “There are no good military options for North Korea. Invading North Korea could result in a catastrophic loss of lives for U.S. troops and U.S. civilians in South Korea. It could kill millions of South Koreans and put troops and civilians in Guam and Japan at risk.”

    Boom.


    To believe the U.S. is headed toward war requires belief that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Imagine what you want about madmen, but leaders and politicians just don’t think that way.

    Still, anyone can ignore whatever facts they like, and believe whatever they want to believe. After all, some people still believe a fat guy in a red suit is going to come down the chimney later this month; try and persuade them that isn’t true…



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  • ISIS Terror Alert: ‘We Will Crush Christmas with Star Wars Spoilers’

    December 24, 2017 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas

    jarjar


    Declaring a literal “War on Christmas,” the Holy Trump Fighters Righteous Hand of God Brigade of the Islamic State issued a chilling threat for this Christmas: they plan to ruin the season for holiday moviegoers everywhere by posting detailed lists of spoilers online for the new Star Wars movie.


    In a rambling statement delivered in front of a cheesy animated flying stars background made from an old Windows 95 screensaver, holding a numbered replica of the bloody, severed head of Jar Jar Binks complete with a certificate of authenticity from LucasFilm, a Brigade spokesjihadi issued the following:

    “We will bring down the infidel’s entertainment, the puerile space drama many of you pigs will seek to watch on your so-called holy day.”

    “Even as I speak, our most holy hackers are breaking through the firewalls of the infidel websites of CNN, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and HillaryClinton.com. Come Christmas morning, the western whore Cindy Lou and others will awake to read each and every spoiler in 36 point type, set amongst animated GIFs. You will feel as if Allah is melting away the flesh of a virgin Leia and allowing it to drip upon you.”

    “Oh, you say, I have a fancy plug-in that will not allow me to see anything spoiler-esque about the Star Wars! Hah hah hah, Allah has blessed us, because that plug-in was created by us! It will push our spoilers into the very heart of your Internet experience, as well as any new PS4’s you unwarp. XBox, that’s still cool, we love Halo out here to relax after a beheading, or when the goats grow weary.”

    “So suck on this infidels and blasphemers — this year, the Force is with us!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    “Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.”



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  • Why Leave Well Enough Alone in Jerusalem?

    December 13, 2017 // 39 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
    Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.

    Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.

    And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes. Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some important matters that need to be discussed…
    This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.

    In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”

    Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.

    But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.

     

    In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.

    The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.

    Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.

     

    No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.

    Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.

    Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publically pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.

     

    A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptain airspace and bases.
    In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.

     

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  • Ken Marcus Will Save Israel Using the Full Power of the U.S. Government

    December 13, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Trump


    On Wednesday, December 13, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will most likely make the wrong decision on Kenneth Marcus.

    Marcus is Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Among other things, the office decides education-related complaints under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At his confirmation hearing on December 5, Senators from both parties ignored Marcus’ record of trying to misuse the Civil Rights Act in defiance of the First Amendment to stymie the campus boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. On Wednesday the same committee is expected to rubber-stamp Marcus’ nomination and send it forward for full approval. The head of the Office of Civil Rights will then be a man who has spent years of his life trying to stomp on the rights of university students in his support of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. He’ll head the office that will hear the next round of similar challenges. And nobody, Democrat or Republican, even brought the issue up. Nobody asked him about Israel.

    The 1964 Civil Rights Act, created to give the federal government a powerful tool to force desegregation on local school districts, allows under its Title VI and Title IX provisions for the withholding of federal funds from any school, program or activity which violates the Act by discriminating based on race, color, national origin, or sex. Complaints filed against a school go to the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education (a court challenge is also possible) for a ruling. OCR holds the power to put most schools out of business financially if they rule discrimination has taken place, and schools work hard to stay within boundaries OCR sets through written guidance (so-called “Dear Colleague” letters) and precedent. If the Senate approves him, Ken Marcus will be in charge of all this.

     

    At his nomination hearing, the Senators asked a fair number of questions about Title VI, demanding assurances Marcus would uphold the law regarding equal treatment of white and African-American students, for example. More pointed questions followed from the Democratic Senators about Title IX; Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is looking into changing her agency’s guidance on sexual assault on college campuses. Proponents say her plans will increase due process for the accused, while opponents claim it will weaken the new protections offered since the Obama administration for victims.

    Worthy questions for the future head of the Office of Civil Rights. But what was not brought up was a troubling pattern of Title VI complaints and court challenges Ken Marcus has brought over the years that will soon be just the kind of cases he’ll be helping to decide.

     

    A driven man, as head of his own Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Ken Marcus maintains persons who support the boycott, divest, and sanction movement against Israel are engaged in inherently discriminatory, anti-Semitic activity. In its mission statement, Marcus’ Center says “The leading civil and human rights challenge facing North American Jewry is the resurgent problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on university campuses.” Marcus believes opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands on university campuses violates the civil rights of Jewish students, citing an Obama-era 2010 decision to extend the race or national origin clause of Title VI to Arab Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish students based on their “shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”

    The short version: Ken Marcus the man believes any campus that allows its students to voice opposition to the Israeli occupation should lose its federal funding. Ken Marcus as head of the Office of Civil Rights will adjudicate complaints demanding just that same thing.

     

    Marcus’ new role as adjudicator couldn’t come at a better time, at least for Ken Marcus, in that he has been wholly unsuccessful in getting the Office of Civil Rights he’ll soon run to agree with him to date: every one of Marcus’s Title VI complaints and suits has been thrown out, closed, denied, or otherwise turned down by both OCR and the courts. Despite Marcus’ dubious assertion students on American campuses speaking their minds about the actions of a foreign nation constitute a violation of the civil rights of all Jewish students, both the Office of Civil Rights and the courts at various levels maintain the First Amendment rights of the protestors far outweigh any discrimination. The dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley and First Amendment scholar said plainly “any administrator in a public university who tried to follow Professor Marcus’s approach would certainly be successfully sued for violating the First Amendment.”

    Yet despite his perfect record of losses, Marcus has done much damage, because winning against Marcus comes at a price. Faced with the possibility of an expensive defense, some schools appear to have chilled anti-Israel free expression as a thrifty expedient, the same way schools have chosen to not invite controversial speakers to avoid high security costs.

    Marcus knows exactly how well this chilling effect works. As he wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “These cases — even when rejected — expose administrators to bad publicity… Israel haters now publicly complain that these cases make it harder for them to recruit new adherents… If a university shows a failure to treat initial complaints seriously, it hurts them with donors, faculty, political leaders and prospective students.”

     

    Ken Marcus’ intent to protect Israel using the Office of Civil Rights to twist the noble intentions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to deny the First Amendment rights of students in America is plain enough. Yet at his confirmation hearing not one Senator, including Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken, asked a single question about how Marcus’ pro-Israeli beliefs might influence his decisions as head of the Office of Civil Rights. Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, praised Marcus’ Brandeis Center for outing what he described as a white supremacist teaching at Virginia Tech. Senator Susan Collins referred to attacks against synagogues, and then tossed Marcus a softball question about whether he will protect all persons’ rights (he said yes.) And despite receiving a letter signed by 200 academics and a similar letter from the Arab American Institute asking her to look into Marcus’ objectivity regarding Israel, Senator Patty Murray did not.

    Installing Marcus as head of the Office of Civil Rights is in line with multiple actions aimed at silencing opposition to Israel. The ACLU on Thursday challenged an Arizona law requiring state contractors to promise they won’t boycott Israel. In October, the ACLU filed a challenge to a similar law in Kansas. More than 20 states have adopted measures to restrict the BDS movement. Congress is considering the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would impose fines and possibly even prison on companies which support boycotts. The Act has 266 sponsors, Republicans and Democrats, in the House and 50 in the Senate.

     

    None of this came up at Ken Marcus’ confirmation hearing. As a private citizen Marcus accomplished a lot on behalf of the State of Israel. In his new job at the Office of Civil Rights, Marcus will be able to drive his agenda against the rights of Americans with the full power of the federal government behind him. Ask Congress; they’ll tell you Ken Marcus is a man of his times.

     

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  • The Medium is the Message: “Created News” in the Age of Trump

    December 11, 2017 // 17 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump


    About a week ago most major media outlets announced, again, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was about to be replaced. He is still in office. Was the story a non-story? Time will tell, but no matter what happens to Tillerson, we are in the era of created news, stories based on no facts, written to dominate the news cycle, not inform.

    Take Billy Bush and that infamous Access Hollywood tape. The New York Times recently reported a source (“a person familiar with the conversation,” so at least second hand) claimed Trump privately questioned the authenticity of the pussy grabbing tape. Nearly all established media outlets quickly jumped on the report, giving it greater validity simply by repeating it across the web until it could not be ignored. Sheer volume sent the story trending on social media.

    Amplification also carried a neat twist: the source for the secondary tranche of articles became in most cases a credible “New York Times reports…,” not the second-hand somebody from the original report. But unless you bothered to chase the tale around the web links, you’d never know how little the whole thing was based on.

    The next cycle were stories claiming Trump didn’t deny (the modern equivalent of the “Are you still beating your wife?” question) the anonymous-sourced original story. No one questioned the logic of having to deny something that may never have happened in the first place. Those non-denial stories were followed by commentary from second-tier media who proceeded as if the initial story was true, seasoned with the anxiety and outrage their readers demand as salve to their own anxiety and outrage. The third wave of articles were more sober, such as Op-Eds back in the New York Times, full circle, proclaiming Trump’s non-denial of what may not have ever happened as evidence of his instability. Or something.

    The point is no longer to inform — remember, journalism — it is just to keep the ball in the air, in this case to score political body blows against an easy, unpopular target. And for those who are fans of the surreal, the one person who truly seemed to benefit from all this was former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush himself. Bush, fired in 2016 for essentially being too much of a bro’ with Trump back in 2005, made late night rounds auditioning for redemption by sanctimoniously confirming the authenticity of a 12 year old tape no one was seriously questioning.

    This is all damaging enough when the subject is a puff of air like the Access Hollywood tape. The tape is from 2005, and its importance to voters was adjudicated by the last election. The game turns darker when the same strategy is applied to people.

     

    Welcome to Rex Tillerson’s world. Last week’s stories of his impending firing/resignation (and in other weeks past and future, those for Sessions, Mueller, Mattis, Kelly, Kushner, Ivanka, et al.) were crafted whole by the media out of anonymous sources. They have circulated almost since his first day in office. They have alternated between announcing UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as Tillerson’s replacement and proclaiming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. Each story was based on the usual anon-sources, themselves a mystery even in anonymity — were the no-names actually Chief of Staff John Kelly with a trial balloon, or a White House intern passing on a bit of cafeteria gossip? We don’t know and the reporters do not seem to care to differentiate. What did matter is that each story published was blown bigger as multiple media outlets re-gifted one another’s pieces, a house of cards with no real base to stand on that grew taller and taller as new outlets grew not much of nothing into breaking news.

    The stories themselves eventually reached a critical media self-generated mass such that the administration was forced to again formally deny something that may not have even happened. The media in turn took the denials from Tillerson, Trump, and the White House spokesperson, and simply dismissed them — of course they are lying! It was the White House against the word of an anonymous source! Anything short of a full declarative denial was relabeled “did not actually deny,” something in 2017-speak that counts as a sort-of “yes.”

    Of course Rex Tillerson will leave office at some point, and you can expect the media to claim his skin when he does, much like a weather forecaster announcing rain every day, taking credit for being correct on the wet days and saying on sunny ones “Just you wait, I’ll be proved right in the end!”
    The disturbing arrival of created news on the media table is mirrored by other unpleasant trends. While much of this has deeper roots, the mass nervous breakdown that afflicted America on November 8, 2016 seems as a good an official start date as any other. Tricks that used to be the stock and trade of rags like the National Enquirer and its ilk, things like clickbait headlines at odds with body of the story, are now part of CNN and the Washington Post’s vocabulary. Opinion and commentary blend together with “reporting.” Where once journalists took pains to separate their personal political beliefs from their reporting, follow modern journalists on Twitter to see their pride in being hyper-partisan in their unedited, personal comments. There are other new normals: it is perfectly acceptable to call out the president with schoolyard-taunts, or make a crack about the orange man-child, or toss out homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance. Writers build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

    Donald Trump’s victory was loathsome to the majority of journalists, whose cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election. Their reaction is this “new journalism.” Though it is unlikely to fade during Trump’s tenure, despite continuing issues with falling public trust in the media, the real question is what will happen after that. Will the hyper-partisan new journalism shift to Target Pence? Will it follow a Democrat into the White House? Is it possible for journalism to snap back?

     

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  • State Department, Meet the New Boss, Same/Worse as the Old Boss?

    December 8, 2017 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


     

    The rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s demise may finally not be greatly exaggerated.


    A marked man, it was only about a month ago the media speculated on how soon United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace Tillerson. Two weeks ago a trial balloon floated up with Mike Pompeo’s name in trail. But a burst of nearly-identical stories over the last few days, spearheaded by the New York Times, signals the end for Tillerson and names Pompeo, currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his successor. What lies ahead?

    The unique interplay between the Civil Service (non-diplomats largely stationed in Washington DC) and the Foreign Service (who have primary responsibility in Washington and who staff the embassies and consulates abroad) complicates Secretary of State transitions. Engaging both sides, with their different vested interests, can be tough. And unlike the military, where chains of command and internal procedures are written on checklists, State is a hybrid, half foreign and half domestic, with a structure that either conforms to a new Secretary or is conformed by a new Secretary. State is a vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the boss’ office waiting for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body in need of an active connection.


    A huge part of Tillerson’s failure was in missing that last point. The traditional way of engaging the bureaucracy is for a new Secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will shape the rank and file below them. Bonus points to the Secretary who can pluck out career Foreign Service people with the approved ideological bent to act as a virtual political appointees, a strong point of Hillary Clinton’s. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and now finds himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble, including disclosing once-sacrosanct internal dissent memos. Soon after Tillerson took office his diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. Another dissent memo leaked some ten days ago, this time with Tillerson’s people claiming their own boss was in violation of the law.

    Alongside building their version of the organization, it is incumbent on a new Secretary to aim the State Department at some goal. State is an agency without primary agency; under one administration it focuses on arms control. Under another, State tries to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the emphasis has been on “soft power,” programs to empower women, the use of social media, promoting democracy, and the growth LGBTQ rights. Tillerson never articulated much of a goal beyond some unfocused thoughts on structural reform that will never again see daylight. Though it is fashionable to label Tillerson as the worst Secretary of State of modern times, in reality Tillerson will be remembered as perhaps the most pointless of Secretaries.

    Based on my conversations with former State Department colleagues (I served 24 years as a diplomat) Tillerson’s successor will encounter a mood inside the State Department reminiscent of a rescue dog kennel; over there are the mutts who feel abused, wary of any new human. Off to the side are the ones who have given up; the need to log a certain number of years of service to get their generous pensions will keep many technically on the books but a new Secretary can expect very little from them. The majority of dogs will be open and waiting to see what happens (“Can’t be much worse, right?” is something many at State are saying.) But watch out for a few who feel newly empowered, the ones who think they helped drive a bad Secretary out of office. They may still bite.


    It is unclear Mike Pompeo, the heir apparent, will be able to succeed where Tillerson failed. The climate for political appointees in Washington today feels more like that of late in a moderately successful president’s second term; the good people have already been selected-served-moved on, many of the old standbys are not interested in signing up for what may turn out to be short-run jobs, and that leaves a small pool for Pompeo to fill State Department jobs from. Pompeo’s tenure at Central Intelligence was brief enough that he is unlikely to bring over many loyalists, and most at Langley see working for State as a kind of step down anyway (many at the Agency view themselves as the lacrosse team, with State as the nerd club.) Who will Pompeo staff with? And how can he do it quickly while the dogs are still weighing out their next moves?

    There is also the issue of culture. Pompeo began his tenure at Central Intelligence on a relatively positive note. However, his hard line stances soon rubbed many the wrong way, leaving them wondering if the boss could navigate the nuances that drive good decision making. How poorly that will play out at the State Department, with its culture of discussion and deliberation, its love of what-ifs and may-be’s, is easy to imagine.

    And there’s the record: Pompeo caught Trump’s eye in part for his tough stance on Iran. Inside the State Department, the Iran Nuclear Accords are seen as one of the institution’s modern-day signature accomplishments. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the global system of trade and democracy, part of modern administrations. Tillerson, weakly but in line with State-think, pushed for some sort of talks with North Korea and supported the Iran deal. Pompeo opposes both. That’s a big chip to have on your shoulder your first day at work.


    But at the end of the day, the mismatch between State and Pompeo, or State and Haley, or State and Tillerson for that matter, is not really about who is Secretary of State, but who is president. A lot of the anger directed at Tillerson was actually using him as a stand-in for Trump. The primary driver of foreign policy remains the White House, and the White House appears to have little love for its diplomats. If as an establishment Republican Tillerson had within him a bit of divergent thinking from Trump on issues like Iran and North Korea, Pompeo as an old school hawk is nothing but a loyalist, with a personal connection to Trump. If the president’s intention is indeed to dismantle the State Department, it is hard to imagine a person better suited to the task than a guy like Mike Pompeo. As the New York Times editorial board has already accused Tillerson of “making war on diplomacy,” it will be interesting to see what words they have left to label Pompeo’s opening shots.


    Rex Tillerson is still Secretary of State, even as people inside and outside of Foggy Bottom cheer his demise. The irony will be if in a few months from now some of those same people start wondering if they had not been better off under his leadership.


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  • Whither Rex Tillerson?

    December 6, 2017 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump



    Pity soon-to-maybe-be-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Here’s a guy who can’t get to the sports page of his favorite newspaper without wading through a new round of rumors of his own demise. If it is not a new leak out of Foggy Bottom saying someone cut in front of him in the cafeteria line to get the last Jello dessert, presaging a palace coup, it is the New York Times claiming the White House plans to oust him by the end of the year, possibly to replace him with current CIA director Mike Pompeo.

    Politico ran basically the same story two weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to attract much attention. And it seemed like only yesterday Tillerson was finished again, to be replaced by America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. OK, sorry, that was last month.

    Let’s take a deep, cleansing breath, and recognize there are two stories here. The first is how long Tillerson will remain at State, a story that is more palace intrigue than anything else. The second is who will replace him.

    Whether Tillerson quits or gets fired soon is mostly just a matter of how his Wikipedia biography concludes. From Day One neither the media, nor his own organization, the Department of State, offered him a chance. Even before the 2016 election results, State’s supposedly non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move then not supported by Candidate Trump. Soon after Tillerson took office, his non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in President Trump’s immigration plans. Yet another dissent memo leaked just ten days ago or so, this time with State’s people claiming their boss was in violation of the law over a decision regarding child soldiers. Daily “reports” from “sources” claiming the Secretary had cut himself off from the organization’s rank and file. Given the leaks, maybe Tillerson was wise to avoid the cafeteria.

    The media offered the Secretary no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the “end of diplomacy,” the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with a kind of regularity old man Tillerson would ruefully envy the loss of U.S. standing in the world. Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Tillerson declaring “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albrighthe said Tillerson is creating a “national security emergency.”

    Despite factual evidence to the contrary, most mainstream media claimed State was hemorrhaging diplomats. With no evidence presented (State has always been notoriously tight-fisted with its personnel statistics), the New York Times stated without qualification Tillerson had “fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women.” Ouch, if true!

    Adding to the cat fight-like coverage of events of state, Tillerson supposedly called Trump a moron, Trump’s tweets were interpreted by the press as undermining whatever standing Tillerson might have had. The media, who had blissfully ignored State hiring below attrition since the Obama years, now seized on every routine retirement out of Foggy Bottom as proof that Tillerson was toast.

    Whether you believed Tillerson’s planned reforms for State were a sincere attempt at change to an institution already dipping into irrelevance next to the military, or whether you believed Tillerson’s reforms were the work of a hatchet man sent in to destroy the State Department (if you’ve had a couple of drinks reading this, the destruction was to empower Putin. If you’re still sober-ish, the destruction was revenge for State hiding Hillary’s emails), the bottom line was very clear: those reforms were never going to happen and Tillerson was a dead man walking. If you are really into conspiracy theories, forget Putin and Clinton. Tillerson needs to go because Trump fears his vote under the 25th Amendment to oust him. Pompeo (or even Haley) stands on more ideologically firmer ground.

    Outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.

    I have no idea as I write this whether Rex Tillerson is still sitting in that office on the seventh floor of State Department headquarters or not. It doesn’t matter. If he’s still there today, he won’t be there sometime soon. So the real question shifts to who will eventually replace the neutered Rex Tillerson, and what if anything that means.

    The initial response is to look at the media’s current favorite horse in the race, Mike Pompeo, possibly still head of CIA as I write this (rumor suggests Pompeo would be replaced at CIA by Senator Tom Cotton, a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan.) In the Politico hagiography of Pompeo, the CIA director glows in “favored status in the West Wing.” Haley is done. “The president has been turned off in part by speculation that Haley has her eyes on a presidential bid, two people close to the president said,” in the language of Washington today, where facts are simply what “people close” to things say.

    So what would Mike Pompeo be like as America’s 70th Secretary of State?

    Never missing a chance to get the first knife planted in the back, former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey warns while Pompeo currently “has this very close relationship with Trump, and you can’t nurture it the same way when you’re traveling all the time,” referring to the Secretary of State’s international schedule. But before the poo-poo, what was Pompeo like at CIA that might give us a clue to how’ll he will do at State?

    The signs are not good. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the liberal global system of trade and democracy, part of any administration. Pompeo is a hardlining on Iran; State sees as one of its few legacy successes the nuclear agreement with that nation worked out under Secretary of State John Kerry.

    Even at CIA, Pompeo showed a demeanor that seems at odds with the State Department’s culture of consultation, discussion, what ifs and may be’s. Pompeo’s clear certainty on issues such as Iranian nuclearization brushed hard against even the Agency’s culture, which one officials described as “The CIA isn’t Saudi Arabia, the people there appreciate nuance, they’re married to complexity.” It won’t get better at State.

    Sources at the Agency explain to become a successful head of the CIA you really have to own the place, which means embracing the entrenched powers, the people on the 7th floor and the one just below it. “You’ve got to get them on side, and you’ve got to spend time doing it,” said one Agency veteran.

    “I think Pompeo did that for a time and early on people liked him, thought of him as one of them — believed he would have their backs,” explained one CIA official. “But that’s changed. He has a temper and he’s used it, and that’s something that intelligence professionals frown on. I heard of one incident, outside his office, when he was screaming at a senior intel officer — ‘are you incompetent or just stupid?’ So, not surprisingly, at least recently, he’s started to lose people there.”

    It appears highly unlikely Pompeo would find himself well-liked at State. Diplomats displeased with the relatively bland Tillerson, whose faults extend to apparently not having many firm opinions on foreign policy matters, will be repelled by Pompeo’s views.

    Looking ahead to a Pompeo tenure, one State Department source told me “There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with ‘But over at CIA they say…’ and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder.” As Secretary of State, it is doubtful Pompeo will interact with, or care much about, the organization he’ll head up. As a Trump loyalist, whatever nefarious plans Trump has for the State Department as an institution will find a boss happy to see them carried out. Trial balloons masquerading as reporting saying Pompeo’s supposed closeness to Trump will be welcomed by the State Department rank and file are sad gasps in the dark. There is no good news ahead for Foggy Bottom.

    Whatever pundits did not like about Trump and his State Department they will dislike plus double much under Pompeo. Whatever one believes about the administration’s plans to destroy diplomacy, that belief will be reinforced during Pompeo’s tenure. But here’s the prediction I am most certain of: about two months after Pompeo takes office as Secretary of State, the media will start writing revisionist pieces claiming Tillerson was a check on Trump’s impulsivity, and is missed at State. The New York Times will remember Tillerson’s tenure as the time no new wars started, when the U.S. did not start a war with Iran, North Korea, Russia or China.

    Rex Tillerson is not the worst Secretary of State and he is far from the best of them. For the State Department rank and file, he was a punching bag, a symbol of what they believe the Trump administration has in store for them as an institution. For the media and some members of Congress, Tillerson was a stand-in for all that they hate about Trump and his view of the world. The guy never stood a chance. It is hard to see anyone seeing Pompeo much differently. He takes office as a dead man walking.



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  • The Media and the Myths of Trump

    December 1, 2017 // 23 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America


    Donald Trump’s victory was so loathsome to journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize the presidency they never wanted to happen.

    The two myths are Trump did not really win the election, and that once in office Trump is so unfit to serve that he is a danger to the nation and must be removed as a people’s act of literal self-defense. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.

     

    The myth Trump did not actually win exploded outward like the Big Bang from November 8, 2016. There were the Jill Stein recounts, and false claims of voter fraud, gerrymandering, and racist voter suppression that lead to an “unfair” win. This all morphed into what stands as one of the most ignorant themes ever expressed in American politics, that because Clinton “won” the popular vote she was somehow entitled to the Oval Office. Reporting on all this came close to claiming the Constitution itself conspired against Hillary. “We’re in uncharted waters,” proclaimed CNN’s Anderson Cooper; the network also featured an ex-CIA officer calling for a new election, what in CIA-speak is better known as an overthrow.

    Instead of dismissing such unconsitutional nonsense, the media featured elaborate justifications, and coined the term “Hamilton Electors” to tie the quixotic effort to one of the few Founding Fathers voters knew via song. An online petition to declare Clinton president that in normal times would have been seen as a crank call was instead promoted into gaining the largest response in Change.org history. Editorials called for the Electoral College vote to be unconstitutionally postponed. Once-cogent pundits like Lawrence Tribe and Robert Reich were handed mainstream platforms to morph themselves into human cottage industries proclaiming the impeach-ability of various Tweets and statements.
    Even today, the New York Times’ White House correspondent beats the fan fiction drum for the importance of the popular vote. Her paper continues to focus on the urgent need to do away with the Electoral College after 220 years, the system that put Obama and Clinton and Carter into office, before the next time Trump runs. In what under normal times would be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, Huffington Post features interviews saying the election may not be “legitimate,” over a year later.

     

    The efforts to somehow keep Trump from office continued right up to the swearing in ceremony, itself boycotted by Democrats who did not want to “normalize” the election.

    It was at that point the second myth came to the fore: Trump was unfit to serve. The uber-disqualification is that Trump is literally a Russian agent (“Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?” asked New York magazine, in a headline that would have made reporters blush during the McCarthy Red Scares), directly under the control of the Kremlin, who holds power over him via some sort of pornographic pee tape no one has seen, or sweetheart real estate loans no one has seen, or in return for buying Trump the election demonstrated by evidence no one has seen.

    Alongside the “Trump is a Russian agent” disqualifier are a handful of memes never before seen in American politics. Trump’s hotels make his presidency illegal under the Emoluments Clause, a Constitutional snippet that generally escaped notice for 220 years (that Obama might get a $60 million book advance to write about things he did in office but only paid out, alongside six figure speaking engagements, after he left office, or that foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State, are not discussed.) Trump’s tax returns, available to the IRS for decades, are a media strawman; only if the people of Twitter examine those old 1040s can democracy be saved, IRS auditors and their technical knowledge be damned. Maxine Waters, a Member of Congress, said Trump should be impeached because he is boorish and crude.

    Waters’ statements and other similar, albeit slightly more coherent ones, are addendums to the myth, the idea that Trump is on borrowed time. The media fans the flames of Mueller, expecting the smoking gun that has so far eluded the CIA, NSA, FBI, IRS, and NYT to emerge any day. The 25th Amendment, created after the Kennedy assassination to codify the line of succession should the president become incapacitated, has been crowd-sourced into some sort of psychological failsafe mechanism whereby the Vice President, et al, will wake up one morning, realize the Washington Post has been right all along, and force Trump out of office.

    Ensuring that Trump is to appear as unqualified, the media focuses on “evidence” of that. Looking at his trip to Asia, the main story out of the Japan leg was some silliness over Trump overfeeding fish, not what was discussed with the Japanese regarding North Korea. CBS News’ White House Correspondent purposefully pulled a quote about Japanese auto manufacturing out of context to make Trump appear uninformed, whereas the full statement paints the opposite picture. From China, the theme was Trump was “rolled,” cajoled into, well, something, via a VIP visit to the Forbidden City. The main point of the APEC meeting in the Philippines? A silly photo. His speech in Korea, focusing on the problems with the North, was largely reported based on a irrelevant cherry-picked sentence about a Trump golf course. Back at home, the New York Times headlined Trump taking an awkward drink of water.

     

    Running alongside such spot reporting is a steady stream of anonymous source-based predictions war is imminent in Iran or North Korea, and that DeVos, Mueller, Sessions, Kushner, Tillerson, Mattis, and Kelly will be fired or resign. That such things haven’t happened in a year is irrelevant; the media says without evidence they still might. A silly Trump tweet criticizing a reporter becomes “evidence” the President has abandoned the First Amendment. Journalists, who as a group once took pride in their objectivity, now openly proclaim their “not Trump” political allegiance.

    Routine tussles of government, the stuff of our system, are overstated to a rube-like public such that courts doing what they are supposed to do, ruling on the President’s immigration orders, are inflated into “constitutional crisis.” It’s not a crisis if the system functions as it was created to do.

    Journalistic standards of evidence, typically requiring multiple sources and/or on-the-record witnesses, are replaced by the egregious use of anonymous sources that are little more than gossip from interns. Watch the mushroom-level growth of headlines with colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Reported: and passive constructions such as “I’m told…” that get around the fact that the story is not really based on facts.

    Reporters compete with one another to show how aghast they are at the “latest.” Newsweek is gleeful at the possibility Trump won’t finish his term. CNN talks of deposing the president. Politico runs an innuendo-heavy but fact-free piece claiming the KGB, seeing into the future, compromised Trump in 1987.

    The sum of such snarky, non-substantive reporting is clear: America is on the lip of chaos, Trump is not leading America, he is accomplishing nothing of substance, he is unfit.

     

    But the most unprecedented element of myth is the steady stream of reporting the President of the United States is so mentally ill that his continued presence in the White House is a suicide plan for America. Never before have mainstream media so freely and casually declared the President to be medically, legally, insane, and all based on little but fear and a few Tweets. The media has normalized this into common knowledge; as an example, an article pitch I made to a global media outlet explaining why war was not imminent in Korea was rejected because I could not “prove” Trump was not insane (The American Conservative bravely published my story.)

    The myth is buttressed by medically unethical remote diagnosis, such as that of Dr. John Gartner, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. “I don’t think people have any idea how close we are the point of no return,” Gartner said. “I think that there is an 80% chance he’s going to push that nuclear button. Why? Number one, Trump is a malignant narcissist. As far as I know, I cannot recall a single malignant narcissist in history who did not start a major war.” Gartner concludes “the noose is tightening around their necks and unlike Richard Nixon, Trump and his cabal are not going to leave gracefully. Donald Trump is going to be really like Bonnie and Clyde; he’s going to shoot his way out.”

    Though the nation’s nuclear command and control procedures have for better or worse been left relatively unchanged since the Truman administration, it is only now, under the guise that Trump is insane, that the media and some Members of Congress are promoting the idea that change is needed. Media outlets champion the idea the military could refuse to launch missiles, advocating insubordination, essentially a coup, as the best hope our nation will survive. Such paranoia exceeds the worst of Cold War fears.

    Along the way the myths have created their own new normals; it is now perfectly acceptable to call out the President with schoolyard-taunts: Trump has small hands, a joke about Cheeto Jesus, the orange man-child, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance, that sort of thing. Writers like Charles Blow in the New York Times build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

     

    For the first time in our nation’s history powerful mainstream forces are trying to change the results of an election. Shocked by Trump’s victory, many in the media wanted to stop him from entering the White House. Failing that, they delegitimize the president in the manufactured-from-thin-air belief that he is such a threat that it is necessary to destroy democracy in America to save it.

    At some point Trump will leave office. CNN and others would be expected to return to their originally scheduled programming at that time. The problem is once you let the genie of trying to overturn an election loose, you won’t be able to stop it. It’s foolish to think this process won’t be used again in 2020, or 2024. The clumsiness of the Obama birth certificate conspiracy to delegitimize a president is nothing compared to the approach being tried with Trump. People are getting more skillful at the game, learning more about the tools available. A new political weapon has been unsheathed. America is playing with fire.

     

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  • What If Trump Dismantled the State Department, and It Didn’t Matter?

    November 30, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump



    Bad news: President Donald Trump may be dismantling the State Department. The good news? No recent president has made much use of those diplomats, so they are unlikely to be missed. And that’s really bad news.


    Recent stories try hard to make the case that something new and dark has crept into Foggy Bottom. Writing for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson sounds the alarm on behalf of the organization of American diplomats she heads: “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60% of its Career Ambassadors since January… The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today.”

    Stephenson doesn’t mention a 60% loss of Career Ambassadors, the most senior diplomats, means the actual headcount drops from only five people to two (and of the three that did retire, two are married to one another suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, another was seconded to a university, important but outside State’s core diplomatic mission that many feel is “at risk.”) Choosing to count noses “right after Labor Day” is deceptive. Most retirements take place officially on September 30 in line with the ending of the federal fiscal year, so numbers will seem lower in November. Stephenson also leaves out the losses are voluntary retirements, not a taking of heads by the Trump administration. None of the retirees have stated they are leaving in protest.

    The number of Career Ministers (another senior rank) in the Foreign Service actually increased from 22 to 26 under Trump. Growth had been delayed by Senate confirmation process, not the White House.

    Stephenson is equally alarmed at Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze affecting entry level diplomats, though fails to note the freeze won’t touch a good two-thirds of new hires, as they come from exempt fellowship programs.

    Also not mentioned is that intake of new Foreign Service officers is now primarily via existing fellowship programs, as regular intake is frozen. These fellowships recruit heavily from historically black colleges and universities, which means diversity at State should actually increase under Trump. And hiring has been below attrition since the Obama years anyway.


    So good news, the dismantling is not happening. Overall, the number of senior diplomats (the top four foreign service ranks) is only 19 people less than at this time in 2016. But the bad news: while a shortage of diplomats is not new under President Trump, the weakening of American diplomacy is real.

    For example, no other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does, handing out about a third of the posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.

    Relevancy?  State has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian. 

    Or take a longer view: in 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052 as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. The reasons may differ, but modern presidents simply have not expanded their diplomatic corps.


    It is the growth of military influence inside government that has weakened State. Months before Barbara Stephenson’s organization worried about Trump dismantling the State Department, it worried about State becoming increasingly irrelevant inside a militarized foreign policy. That worrisome 2017 article cited an almost identical worrisome article from 2007 written at the height of the Iraq War.

    In between were numerous reiterations of the same problem, such as in 2012 when State questioned its relevance vis-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility, budget, and influence is confined to a single country, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, or value to diplomats. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to get Washington’s ear, or to pry open its purse?


    It wasn’t always this way. A thumbnail history of recent United States-North Korean relations shows what foreign policy with active diplomacy, and without it, looks like.

    For example, in 2000 there were American diplomats stationed in North Korea, and the Secretary of State herself visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for rebuilding relations. These steps took place under the 1994 Agreed Framework, which ended — diplomatically — an 18-month crisis during which North Korea threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium production and placed it under international safeguard.

    President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change, which led to the North going nuclear. Unlikely at the advice of his State Department, Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-il as a pygmy. Bush plunged into the Middle East militarily with little further attention paid to a hostile nuclear state.

    With one failed exception, President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might.” The Obama administration-driven regime change in Libya after that country abandoned its nuclear ambitions sent a decidedly undiplomatic message to Pyongyang about what disarmament negotiations could lead to. Without a globally thought-through strategy behind it, war is simply chaos. Diplomacy has little role when the White House forgets war is actually politics by other means.


    It is clear that President Trump thinks little of his State Department. Morale is low, the budget is under attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization plans have many old hands on edge. But the real question of what is wrong with President Trump’s non-relationship with State is answered by asking what value Presidents Bush and Obama derived from a fully-staffed State Department, either by ignoring its advice, or simply ignoring diplomacy itself. As with the numbers that suggest State is not being dismantled, the point is much of the current hysteria in Washington fails to acknowledge that a lot of what seems new and scary is old and scary. It is a hard point, rationality, to make in a media world where one is otherwise allowed to write declarative sentences that the president is mentally ill and will start WWIII soon in a tweet.

    Having the right number of senior diplomats around is of little value if their advice is not sought, or heeded, or if they are not directed toward the important issues of the day. Whether Trump does or does not ultimately reduce staff at State, he will only continue in a clumsy way what his predecessors did by neglecting the institution in regions where it might have mattered most.


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  • #Metoo is for Me, Too

    November 28, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas



    As a young man I was the victim of unwanted sexual attention from someone in Hollywood. In the intervening decades I never told anyone what happened. I know the name of the man who did this to me, but I am not sure what to do with that.


    I landed a summer internship with a major studio, out of a Midwestern college in the 1980s where people simply did not talk much about sexuality. One of the only men at the school who was open about being gay was considered something of a political celebrity on campus. I am a straight man, what today people dismiss sarcastically as boring CIS binary old white bread.

    I knew no one in California. The man who played me was in a position to help me in all sorts of ways, and he sometimes did. He was generous with advice and what seemed to be friendship. Things changed as I remember him showing me the thick binders of aspiring actors and actresses’ head shots, him lingering on the beefcake images and making jokes about how he knew a no-name young shirtless actor, who since went on to some modest roles. The man complimented me on the way I looked, and “accidentally” touched my arms, especially on the days I wore short sleeves. I was very naive and it wasn’t until the invitation to take a drive out into the desert that I finally realized what was happening.

    I distanced myself from him via a rotational program that sent me to another office. It never occurred to me to say anything. For anyone who questions the value of Human Resources in 2017, it was called just Personnel then and did little more than process tax forms. After I moved to the new department, the man called me a few times, showed up at my new office to “say hi” more than once, and invited me to lunch, parties, events, and a place he kept in Palm Springs long after he knew I would say no. He was older than me, and married to a woman at the time. He wrote me a nice letter of recommendation, which I shamelessly and selfishly used to get a future job.


    After I left California, he sent me occasional photos, often just in beachwear. A string of late night phone calls that woke me up, always with an apology that he’d mistaken the time difference – again – between California and the east finally made me realize who I was and what he was when he looked at me like a meal. I think my new-found hostility coupled with his growing boredom (perhaps there was a new intern?) convinced him to leave me alone.

    I never heard from him again after that last unwanted call. I have had no contact with him for decades, and I wonder if he would see this article if he’d even have any idea who I am.

    I don’t think of myself as a survivor, or anything like that. But some of my adult bitterness has roots in what happened. Nobody just walks away. I did learn a lot. I learned about fear and insecurity, and because I was ashamed of myself, I learned how to keep my mouth shut while for years people said to me in response to all sorts of terrible things in the news “Well, you don’t know what it feels like” when I did.

    I wrestled for some time with the idea that I had done something wrong – this took place in a world away when even in Hollywood people didn’t show all their cards to strangers, and some careful back and forth signaling was not uncommon if one party found another of the same sex attractive. Maybe I sent out the wrong signals, maybe I didn’t realize I had to say no unambiguously much earlier than I finally did. Maybe at some level I enjoyed the attention, drawing a line in my mind that didn’t exist in his between the non-sexual and sexual.

    The events of the past weeks brought all of this back from the dark place in memory where I had left it. I was able to make peace with myself long ago, but the complexity of emotions these days still surprised me.

    It took me a moment to pull his name forward, though his face came readily into my mind once I let that happen. Some Googling of a person I had not thought of for many years tells me he’s still in the movie business, doing well, though by no means an A Lister. You’ve heard of some of the projects he has worked on, and he is very active with charities. Turns out he played an important behind-the-scenes role in a TV series I really enjoyed watching with my kids when they were younger. He has some minor connections with the Democratic party. In the current climate, the story might make the news.

    If I say his name.


    I tried to think why it would make sense now to say who he is. If I said his name and Twitter caught it, I’d have a chance to tell everyone I did it for those who can’t stand up, to empower others, those things people seem to know just how to say now when the cameras come on. Maybe someone else would find comfort knowing they are not alone, but I really doubt the world needs my story to understand unwanted sexual attention is rampant. Maybe people would say I am brave and put me on a talk show. We don’t like to acknowledge it, but in 2017 there can be profit in being a victim, and sensationalism for its own sake is part of the world we live in.

    Who knows, maybe the guy would Tweet out an apology, say he was ashamed of his former self, explain he has since gotten help or something, though that would be for him and the people close to him. I certainly don’t need it for anything. Humiliation isn’t zero sum. His wouldn’t erase mine. There was never a chance of justice, not then and not now.

    I can only speak for myself in saying the only reason I could really come up with to “name and shame” this man now is revenge.

    Years ago he was in a position of power over me, and I convinced myself I had no choice but to put up with what was done. Times have changed, and in a way I’m now the one in power: he potentially has something to lose via my accusations while I have little to worry about in the current climate. I have the chance to use the power I have now to hurt him.

    So yeah, #MeToo. But if me, too, means doing to him what he did to me now that I finally can, then, no, not me, too.



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  • How to Talk to Trump-Hating Millennials This Thanksgiving

    November 22, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas, Trump

    Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving (Not in Iraq)


    With Thanksgiving fast approaching, many freshmen college students will be heading home for the first time to confront their ignorant, racist parents. Semi-employed millennials will leave their joblets to endure a long weekend of Dad and Uncle Mark spouting fascism between tearing hunks of non-free range turkey flesh off bone.


    To prepare these young people for the ordeal, the Internet will soon be running guides, such as “How to share a table with relatives whose views you abhor.” A Google search for something like “how to talk to family at thanksgiving about Trump” brings up a cornucopia of advice. Young folks are told to listen to the olds’ racism with compassion and to realize we are threatened by our impending extinction. The job for youth alongside the turkey and gravy? “We have to put in the messy and unfun labor of listening to complaints about modern America, and then offer solutions that aren’t built on fear and hatred for the other.”


    Well, that’s fine for telling them how to deal with us. But here are our tips for young people on how to better prepare for a Thanksgiving political showdown.


    1) Take a moment to note history did not begin on 11/09/16. Mother and I want you to know Trump’s wars started under Bush and Obama. Much of the assault on our civil rights, particularly the devolution of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, began right after 9/11. The CIA, NSA, FBI, Robert Mueller, John McCain, and others may be rock stars today because you think they’re part of #TheResistance, but each has a long history of serving the deep needs of the State. I read 1984 in high school, and Handmaiden’s Tale was written before you were born, so no need to quote them to me. Pass the beets, willya? Who doesn’t like beets?


    2) Everyone can have an opinion, but you might want to listen more closely to the one held by somehow who has studied a particular subject her whole life. Some things have such a history behind them that they are “facts.” If you want to read informed content on federal contracting in regard to Puerto Rico, the lawyers at POGO are better than the kids at Daily Beast, for example. “Conspiracy” in legal filings doesn’t mean spying, it means only that more than one person worked together to commit a crime; lawyers know this, dudes on Twitter do not. So careful about “hot takes;” what you want instead in most cases is a well-debated question among experts. Read The Death of Expertise to learn how intellectual egalitarianism cripples informed discussion. Think about Uncle Mark’s coffee mug, the one that says “Your Google search is not the same as my medical degree.”


    3) For the love of all good things, look up the definition of “fascism” and read a bit about the rise of Hitler before citing each as a response to every thing in the news that frightens or offends you. Might as well dig into causes of the civil war and history of early compromises on slavery in American instead of citing blurbs from the Trevor Noah show about the roots of racial inequality. The people on late night TV are comedians. You are not better informed by listening to their jokes. Entertainment isn’t education. Damn, the stuffing is good this year. Why don’t we have this more than once every twelve months?


    4) Freedom of speech means protecting the right of someone to say things without necessarily endorsing their content. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said no to banning hate speech. The ACLU supports the First Amendment rights of nazis. Get with the program. The rights you defend are in reality your own.


    5) The nation is not at the edge. Democracy is not dying in darkness. The issues of today can be important without being apocalyptic. Nobody is setting up labor camps for LGBTQ illegal immigrant POC refugees. A few nazi cosplayers at a rally are not the same as Crystal Nacht, nor are they likely a predecessor to that. You sound like bad dystopian fan fiction. Get off the ledge – America survived a civil war, two world wars, and a real constitutional crisis surrounding Watergate and Richard Nixon. A President who Tweets is not the end of us. And stop sounding gleeful alongside CNN when you predict it might be.


    6) There’s a bunch of important stuff going on you don’t seem to be focused on. If you’re looking for things to change, speak out against the war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year. You and the soldiers deployed there wore Huggies when it started; pretty much the same for the fighting in Iraq. You’re worried about the treatment of Muslims at America’s airports? Cool; spare a thought for the treatment of Muslims in the multiple nations where America is making war at present. More gravy?


    7) Learn how to read critically and think skeptically. The media environment is rough, with “facts” increasingly corrupted by ideology, and speed of publishing a hot take taking precedence over getting the story right. Be skeptical of reports you absolutely agree with, especially if they are based on anonymous sources. Ask yourself who would really know what the President said in a closed door meeting first-hand, and why would they leak that? There’s usually an agenda, by either the writer, the source, or both, so try and understand it. You might actually have to read multiple media outlets, some representing a point of view you don’t agree with, to get a full picture.


    8) Thoughtful criticism of a (black, female, etc.) candidate is not racism/sexism/bigotry/misogyny, it’s thoughtful criticism. A good line of questioning by a black, female, etc., candidate isn’t brave, fierce, courageous or an attack on the patriarchy, it’s just a good line of questioning. Lotta turkey this year; you want seconds?


    9) In the real world, you can’t slam the door on arguments with single-word retorts like Mansplaining! Benghazi! The Emails! Putin! Whataboutism is not a one-word alternative to the real intellectual work of sorting out history, precedent or parallels that matter. Two things can both be wrong. A bad thing by a Democrat does not cancel out something bad a Republican did. It might be necessary to talk about both. Some ideas cannot be explained in 280 characters. Some require whole books. Don’t dismiss an argument because learning about it is more work than thumbing a scroll wheel.


    10) Talk is fun. But somebody has to in the end do some real work if anything is going to get fixed around here, so help clean up after Thanksgiving dinner.




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  • Soldier Boy, for Veteran’s Day

    November 16, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Military



    Perhaps only ancient Sparta claimed to support its military more than the United States. From the “soldiers in uniform board first” rituals that happen only in American airports, to politics where a decision not to serve is forever held against a candidate, there are reminders that America’s troops are a presence in our society like few others.

    The desire to claim a piece of that leads to elaborate lies, known as “stolen valor.” People buy regulation uniforms and walk through society showing off medals, telling fake war stories, and accepting unearned thanks, all without ever having served a day. They want the juice without having endured the squeeze. They are out there this Veteran’s Day, and they are to be loathed.

    At the same time we curse the fakes, we might also spare a thought this Veteran’s Day to those who really did serve, and how society in return shows its real support. Because while some fake service, in too many ways society fakes support:

    — We pass by 40,000 veterans homeless on any given night. More than half suffer from mental illness.

    — We watch the troops die because of long waits for care at U.S. veterans hospitals.

    — We know some 460,000 vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries. Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, but since the working figure for PTSD out of Iraq and Afghanistan is about 20 percent, that would leave millions of Vietnam and Korean vets suffering.

    — We read in Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide that military suicides increase among those who deploy overseas, among those who suffer brain injuries, and particularly among those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

    — We are silent as 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

    What does it all add up to on Veteran’s Day? This.


    As a State Department foreign service officer I spent a year embedded with the Army in Iraq at several smaller forward operating bases (FOBs). I wrote this about one very bad day.

    I heard about Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson’s (name changed) death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. He’d put the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. I saw the fan spray on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. The blood smelled coppery and though I never smelled that before or since I can summon the smell into my mind at any time I wish, and at some times I don’t wish.

    The death of any soldier reverberated through the FOB. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Ohio or Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the cheapness of the event.

    There was a program with the official Army photo of the deceased, posed in front of an American flag — you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The chaplain read the 23rd Psalm.

    The required speeches were strained because the senior officers who had to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. The dead man’s job had something to do with radios and most present didn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction, and that he was not a Pericles or Lincoln.

    The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted with the deceased. In this ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this FOB. Nobody had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the FOB made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

    But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

    The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, that day, at that place, we all missed him anyway.


    We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.

    But don’t traffic in bullshit this Veterans Day. For all the talk about how much we owe, no one ever demands we pay up. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it damn well better face up to its obligation to take care of them beyond yellow ribbons, firm handshakes, and discounts on wings ‘n beer. Food, shelter, health care, counseling– that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day and every other day. We remember Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson by taking care of the brothers and sisters of his we created.



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  • The First (Terms of Service) Amendment

    November 10, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    The First Amendment must catch up with the 21st century. What we say on Twitter and elsewhere online is too important to be governed by a Terms of Service agreement.

    I recently wrote about how the Ohio State University is preventing white supremacist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus. Despite falling under the First Amendment, Ohio State is looking for a legal loophole to block speech it doesn’t agree with.

    The semi-comforting news is that Ohio State’s face slap to the First Amendment is subject to legal challenge. Not so in the cyberspace-based public square of the 21st century. What should be the modern arena of diverse ideas is instead controlled by corporations and their self-written Terms of Service. Hiding behind the bushes of private ownership, the quasi-public forums on Twitter, Facebook, Google, and their predecessors and successors skirt the First Amendment to control what people say, read, and by extension, think. They are the censors the Founding Fathers feared. It is hard to imagine a more significant threat to the free exchange of ideas.

    It is time to expand the First Amendment to quasi-public institutions.

    The scope of the First Amendment has regularly expanded. In the earliest days of the Republic the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal, and not any state or local governments. It wasn’t until the post-Civil War incorporation doctrine, followed by court cases well into the 20th century, that those restraints on government applied equally to the states. In its own founding days Ohio State could have easily banned a speaker for his beliefs.

    Actually, Ohio State might have been able to ban a speaker it found offensive until even more recently. It wasn’t until a 1995 case that the Supreme Court held a university’s choices on funding student publications fell under the First Amendment’s obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints. Other expansions of the First Amendment took place in the 1950s, when the Supreme Court extended protection to non-traditional “political” speech, including nudity and advertising.

    The First Amendment grows with the times, and needs to do so again to take in what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the “vast democratic forums of the internet in general, and social media in particular.”

    The problem is that those forums today enjoy the freedom to suppress what once were inalienable rights.

    When you use various web sites, you agree to a dense set of conditions, Terms of Service, along with the understanding that Twitter (we’ll use them as shorthand for the range of sites and apps) can interpret things as they wish. So while the Supreme Court continues to hold the line against banning “hate speech,” Twitter is free to apply any standard wishes, along any political or ideological lines it wishes. Twitter may ban speech acting as an arm of the government, skirting the First Amendment because it can.

    That appears to have been what happened with Twitter’s decision to ban advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Both have been accused via a hazy intelligence community assessment of influencing the 2016 presidential election. While the federal government is stuck with that creaky old First Amendment preventing it from chasing RT and Sputnik back to Moscow, Twitter can — literally with a Tweet — silence them. Twitter quickly followed the Russian action with a decision to ban whatever it thinks are “violent groups and hateful imagery and hate symbols.” In the same week Twitter suspended the account of conservative Roger Stone. No explanation was given, though the suspension appears to be related to Stone’s angry Tweets directed at CNN.

    My own Twitter suspension occurred in the process of defending myself against several antifa people who conflated my defense of free speech in the broadest terms with what they believed was my personal support for nazi hatred. Their threats to “punch nazis” lead me to respond. My response was deemed by Twitter incitement to violence (though it would never meet the actual definition of that term the Supreme Court established) and I got the boot. When suspended, Twitter still allows you to read your timeline, so I could see attacks continue until the antifa people tired of it all. I could not block them or respond in any way. It felt a lot like five big guys holding me down while a bully whacked away.

    Google has quietly implemented censorship in the most well-intentioned way possible: to stop child predators. The internet giant tweaked its English-language search results to block sites it believes link to child pornography. “We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global,” the company claims.

    While no one can argue against stopping child predators, those same tools can be used in other ways, known as the search engine manipulation effect. Generally, the higher an item appears on a list of search results, the more users will click on it. Research shows putting links for one candidate above another in a rigged search can increase the number of undecided voters who chose one candidate by 12% or more.

    Burying a link can have a similar effect. Google highlighting an OpEd that argues one way to the query “What is Trump’s Russia policy?” while leaving an opposing opinion out of the search results is a critical free speech issue of our time. A current Google search for “greatest president of the 20th century,” for example, highlights a brisk historical debate over Ronald Reagan versus Franklin Roosevelt, and brings up over 300,000 sites. What if it yielded only one? America would never accept government issuing a list of approved books for dead tree libraries few use anymore, but blithely accepts the same from the most-used research tool in human history.

    Technology has changed the nature of censorship so that free speech in 2017 is not as much about finding a place to speak, but about finding an audience. Censorship in the 21st century targets speakers (example: Twitter) and listeners (Google.) There will soon be no fear that anyone will lock up dissident thinkers in some old-timey prison to silence them; impose a new Terms of Service and they are effectively dead.

    The arguments that Twitter and Google are private companies, that no one forces you to use their services, and in fact you are free to switch to MySpace and Bing, are tired attempts to justify end runs around the First Amendment. Platforms like Twitter are the public squares of the 21st century (seven of 10 American adults used a social media site in 2016), and should be governed by the same principles, or the First Amendment will become largely irrelevant.

    Pretending a corporation with the global reach to influence elections is just another company is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Absent a court decision that places quasi-public forums under the First Amendment, we face a future that will splinter debate and discussion into a myriad of ideological-based platforms such that no one will be listening to anyone they do not already support. It will be a future where Twitter and Ohio State protect students from the words of Richard Spencer at the expense of teaching them how to challenge those words.

     

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  • Safety or Liberty? The Constitution Says We Can Have Both

    October 31, 2017 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    Certain things used to be more, well, self-evident. A great many of us didn’t necessarily like, but understood, the First Amendment protected some speech we strongly disagreed with, or some speech that even made us afraid. We accepted there was an often uncomfortable duty to protect the right to speech irrespective of its content. We understood if we allowed government and institutions to block one person’s speech, even someone with terrible ideas, they could block others. Right up to when they came for us.

    Then a collective mental breakdown took place in November 2016, and an almost organic sense that overnight America set itself on the path to fascism became the justification for the weakening of the First Amendment. Free speech is now seen by many as a liability, an enabling tool for anyone one might label a “nazi.” Some 69% of American college students believe hate speech (“Using language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups”) should be banned by the government. It is an increasingly common point of view that taking away someone’s right to speak, a tool of fascism, somehow protects against the encroach of fascism.

    And so welcome to The Ohio State University, which has refused to allow white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus November 15.

    The attorney representing Ohio State said Spencer would pose a “substantial risk to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University.” Ohio State was no doubt also thinking of the $600,000 the University of Florida claimed it cost to provide security for Spencer’s recent appearance there. The Florida response included hundreds of police officers from five jurisdictions, as well as SWAT teams and snipers.

    Both Ohio State and Penn State (also denying Spencer the chance to speak) are being sued for violating the First Amendment. Without explanation, nearby University of Cincinnati will allow Spencer to speak.

    The law does not appear to be on Ohio State’s side. Blocking a speaker to protect public safety is an absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost of the unfettered speech a democracy needs to thrive. Freedom, it seems, really is not free. The security costs are in fact to protect the First Amendment in broad practice, not simply one man in the specific.

    The security problems Ohio State cites are not created by the speaker; they are created by the mob expected to oppose the speaker and on the assumption Spencer’s supporters will fight back. A historian lecturing across campus from Spencer on Babylonian art needs no police presence. Allowing the mob to have the final word on who speaks can in fact help create mobs where none otherwise exist. Placing a dollar test on free speech means it is only available to those who can afford it.

    These questions are not new. Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence. The town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Similar thinking has been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order. One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    “When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    “We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.”

    The belief law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed other courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head to a Muslim Arts festival.

    I spent four years as an undergrad at Ohio State, and saw first-hand how the university can protect the free speech rights of a diverse group of speakers. A former member of the Black Panther party spoke in favor of racial violence. My time on campus was an era of fights for LGBTQ and other rights, and I saw massive police turnouts to protect gays marching across campus, and for a women’s “Take Back the Night” march through rough neighborhoods. Iranian students massed for anti-American demonstrations at a time when U.S. diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran. Meanwhile, Ohio State every other Saturday in the fall deploys a massive security presence for home football games, where the crowd rises above 100,000, multiples past who might show up to protest Spencer. Events likely to cause hardship to passersby are well-advertised, and students know to avoid them if they wish. Such events, past and current, clearly created the same “material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University” that Ohio State fears Spencer will bring but were allowed anyway.

    And Ohio State knows things worked out smoothly last fall, in fact just days before the election, when the school welcomed white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos to campus.

    Ohio State can do it, they just want to be able to pick and choose when they do it. And that is wrong.

    An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Richard Spencer, or anyone, speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. It’s pretty much self-evident.




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  • The Next Middle East War, Post-ISIS

    October 29, 2017 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Trump

    Iraqs-Prime-Minister-Nuri-al-Maliki

    Islamic State is in fatal decline. The Middle East will soon enter a new era, post-Islamic State, dominated by the Saudi-Iranian power struggle. The struggle will, as it has as it ran alongside the fight against Islamic State, involve shifting Sunni and Shiite allegiances. But the fight is not about religion. Religion this time has more to do with complicating choices in political bedfellows and where proxies are recruited than dogma. For behind that Sunni-Shiite curtain, this is a classic geopolitical power struggle — for control of Iraq and Syria, and for expanding diplomatic and strategic reach throughout the region.

    In the fight against Islamic State, it has been all too easy to cite expediency in putting complex issues aside, but as the alliances created for that struggle run their course, the new reality will force changes. With the strategic value of funding Islamic State as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq gone, the Saudis appear to be pivoting toward building warmer relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad. That a Saudi airline is just now announcing the first return of direct service between the two countries since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 is no coincidence, nor is it an isolated event

    The Saudis also appear willing to let a lot of religious water pass under the bridge to take advantage of a looming intra-Shiite power struggle in Baghdad among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (above), and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the most religiously zealous Shiite of the group, has always been something of a nationalist, and unlike his rivals, is wary of Iranian influence. It is perhaps not surprising that he has made friendly trips to Sunni Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, the first time in 11 years done under official invitation from Saudi Arabia.

    Sadr is an interesting choice for the Saudis to use to gain influence in Baghdad. Real progress for Riyadh means untangling years of close Iranian cooperation in Iraq, to include limiting the power of the Iranian-backed militias. Sadr has significant influence among the militias, and can use his religious credibility to sell Saudi cooperation to the vast numbers of his followers who remember well the Saudis funded al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State’s killing of so many Shiites over the years. Further enhancing Sadr’s Shiite religious status can thus further Sunni Saudi goals. During his visit, the Saudis gifted Sadr with $10 million for “rebuilding,” but also astutely threw in some special visas for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for Sadr to distribute.

    One should not, however, sell Iran short. Its ties to officials in Baghdad are a tiny part of a deep relationship forged in the bloody fight against the American occupiers. Iranian special forces then helped defeat Islamic State, Iranian money continues to support Iraq, and the Shiite militias who will suddenly have a lot less to occupy their time post-Islamic State are still mostly under Iranian influence. In the absence of any effective national army, no government will stand long in Baghdad without militia support. At the moment, Iran is way ahead in Iraq.

    Iran is also likely to be a winner in Syria. Islamic State’s defeat will significantly lessen Sunni influence there, and Iran’s role as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s protector will only increase in value now that it appears Assad will remain in control of some portion of the country. The Saudis backed the wrong team and are left with little influence.

    In addition to a strong hand in Iraq and Syria, Iran is also probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years, and is largely religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous (though keep an eye on the Kurdish minority.) While still governed in significant part by its clerics, the country has held a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. And unlike the Saudis, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.


    Power struggles create flashpoints, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle post-Islamic State is no exception.

    The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen has settled into a version of World War I-style trench warfare, with neither side strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. In an ugly form of stasis, the conflict seems likely to stay within its present borders.

    A potential powder keg however lies in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a de facto state arguably since 2003, did the one thing they weren’t allowed to do, pull the tiger’s tale by holding a formal independence referendum. That vote required everyone with a stake to consider their next moves instead of leaving well enough alone.

    Iran, and the Iranian-backed government now in Baghdad, are clear they will not tolerate an actual Kurdish state. With Islamic State defeated, those governments will simultaneously lose the need to make nice to keep the Kurds in that fight and find themselves with combat-tested Shiite militias ready for the next task. Following a Shiite move against the Kurds, and stymied in Yemen, imagine the Saudis throwing their support into the fight, and a new proxy war will be underway right on Iran’s own western border.


    While it may seem odd to write about the balance of power in the Middle East leaving out the United States, that may very well describe America’s range of options post-Islamic State.

    The United States, which did so much via its unnecessary invasion of Iraq and tragic handling of the post-war period to nurture the growth of Islamic State, seems the least positioned of all players to find a place in a post-Islamic State Middle East. American influence in Baghdad is limited, and with Washington having declared its opposition to the Kurdish independence referendum, likely limited in Erbil as well. Detente with Iran is in shambles under the Trump administration, leaving Washington with few options other than perhaps supporting the Saudis in whatever meddling they do in Iraq.

    Having followed his predecessor’s single minded “strategy” of simply “destroy Islamic State,” there are no signs the Trump administration has any ideas about what to do next, and with the military exhausted and the State Department apparently sitting out international relations at present, it is unclear if any will emerge. It will soon be mission accomplished for America with nothing much to follow. And if that sounds familiar, echoing back to 2003, well, then you understand how things got to where they are.




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  • Madmen, North Korea, and War

    October 25, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Syria, Trump


    The seemingly accepted wisdom that American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are paired madmen on the edge of war has little to support it other than projected fears. There will be no war because war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is very bad for everyone (we’ll get to the madmen theory in a moment.)

    North Korea’s weapons, nuclear and conventional, are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. The North has no realistic claims on overseas territory or resources to resolve, and its borders are stable. Its weapons have not been used offensively more or less since 1953. They exist within the most perfect example of mutually assured destruction history has seen.

    Mutually assured destruction, MAD, is what kept the Cold War cool, the understanding that if either the United States or Russia unleashed nuclear weapons, both sides would be destroyed. The same applies today on the Korean Peninsula, where any conflict means the end of the North and the end of the Kim dynasty. “Conflict” in this sense also includes an invasion of South Korea by the North. The United States and its allies will win any fight. Kim and everyone with any power, influence or stake in the North knows that. The nation of North Korea exists to exist, living proof of its own juche philosophy of self-reliance. North Korea has no reason to start a war that will end in its own destruction. Its nuclear weapons are only useful if they are never used.

    Any talk of an American conventional “surgical strike” ignores the reality that no amount of planning can ensure every weapon of mass destruction will be destroyed; if that was possible the United States would have done it. Any attack on North Korea will result in a nuclear response — there is nothing “limited” for a cornered animal fighting for its life. While it is unclear a North Korean missile could reach American territory, no one in Washington has ever been willing to bet the house that a submarine with a nuke, or North Korean special forces with a dirty bomb, couldn’t do significant damage to an American city. Or to Seoul and Tokyo, both also well within range of North Korean nuclear and conventional missiles.

    So while the American mainland is not under the threat of mutually assured destruction from Pyongyang per se, war on the Korean Peninsula would inevitably destroy American allies South Korea and Japan, unleash radioactivity across the Pacific, and cripple the global economy such that from Washington’s point of view it does indeed exist in a state of virtual mutually assured destruction. Deterrence works. Ask the Cold War.

    All that’s left is the madman theory, the idea that Kim and Trump are irrational, impulsive people who could just one night say let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing in history supports it.

    The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional conflict, famine, crushing sanctions, internal strife, and hostile acts. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union, the transition of China to a pseudo-capitalist economy, and American governments from Truman to Trump. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You stay in power and hold your own against multiple superpowers by careful action. And there is nothing in the current record to support any contention the current Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

    The Central Intelligence Agency agrees. A top official said Kim’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong Un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee of the Agency’s Korea Mission Center. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    Which leaves Trump as the last standing madman. The problem is, after some ten months, it is hard to point to any irrational act, an actual decision made or action taken that is without logic or reason, something that a madman did anyway knowing the consequences would be dire.

    Forget the tweets; whatever they are, they have come to be seen by the world outside the media as inconsequential. The Tweets are mean, stupid, crude, unpresidential, provocative, and all the rest, but they have never added up to much more than steamy fuel for pop psychologists. Internationally, governments have learned to leave them unanswered except for the occasional diplomatic snark. Nothing that scales to the level of nuclear war-irrationality has actually happened.

    The strongest case for “irrational” is based on Trump’s apparent impulsivity. Despite his lack of political experience, Trump has lived a very public life, in the spotlight for most of the time at least two of the three Kim’s have been on the world stage. He ran companies, made and lost money, he got himself elected president. He’s been in office now some ten months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions people have made have come to pass. We end up right back at the tweets, a long string of impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts.

    In comparison, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in part because they tried to assassinate his dad 12 years earlier. It was Bush’s nonsensical inclusion of North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” that scuttled the last real attempt at nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush provacatively demanded regime change, a string of actions which lead in a direct line to the North going nuclear in 2003. Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong Il, as a pygmy.

    President Obama created new American wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, re-entered the Iraq war, and surged without result into Afghanistan. He held weekly meetings where he alone decided which human beings across the globe would be snuffed out by drones, allegedly claiming “I’m really good at killing people.” With one failed exception, Obama avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while threatening the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North.

    And yet the current president is the one voted most likely to act impulsively and start a war. So far he’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

    What’s left is the “but not yet” pseudo-argument, that whatever one expects Trump to do, just because he hasn’t done it does not mean he won’t. Hard to refute people who demand one foretell the future, but go ahead and bookmark this page and see how the conclusions look in a year.

    At this point we have run out of reasons why there will be war on the Korean Peninsula.

    With the exception of the Trump element, all of the factors that will prevent war in 2017 have been preventing war in Korea for decades. There is nothing in the record, recent or historical, that supports the idea Trump (or Kim) will wake up for cocoa, push a button, and start World War III. It’s a rough, messy, incomplete version of peace, and we’re just going to have to learn to live with it.

     

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  • Review: Springsteen on Broadway

    October 15, 2017 // 8 Comments

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    Posted in: Other Ideas



    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show now running through February in New York City, is something extraordinary. A man who has entertained us our whole lives stands on a stage for two hours and confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, offers an apology, and opens his heart to a room of people about what it means to acknowledge you’re closer to the end than the beginning.

    I almost wrote “a room full of strangers,” but that would not have been true. We all grew up with different parents in different towns, and went to different schools together, but we knew each other. Despite our differences, we grew up hearing the same stories, listening to these same songs. And now, he at age 68 and most of us in our 50’s it seemed, it was time to make amends.

    I’d heard some of this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs had to admit what they had done, the people they had hurt, and seek forgiveness. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem; he sought amends tonight by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away. So tonight he took that back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself back in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington decades later who was sent in his place. Calling his own career “frivolous” in the face of such sacrifice, Bruce was pissed off up there tonight singing, no, shouting the lyrics.

    Age is omnipresent as a theme – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the unchanging set list; of the 15 songs, three of them come from the Born to Run album, published when Bruce was only 26 years old, one from earlier than that (Growing Up), and another from before he turned 30 (Promised Land.) For a career that spanned 45 years and counting, it’s telling that a 68 year old Springsteen chose a third of the set from that youthful period. As Bruce said tonight, there’s less blank paper for us to write on.

    “I have never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never done any hard labor. And yet this is all that I’ve written about. I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which I personally have had no practical experience,” Bruce confessed or apologized or maybe both, confusing us further by delivering the sentences in his odd acquired Midwestern drawl that sounds like nobody in New Jersey. These thoughts could explain the absence from the show of any of Bruce’s material from Ghosts of Tom Joad, the industrial songs from The River and Darkness, the American folklore tunes, and the Seeger sessions. He had to leave a lot out to make it all fit on Broadway, but those omissions seemed purposeful, not merely practical.

    Maybe those tunes were left out because they really weren’t his own; he owned the emotions there as a character but not the biography, and tonight was all about biography. A lot of this has hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an 8 year old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, it was Academy Award-quality, because the pain as present as the sweat that popped out involuntarily on his forehead.

    Bruce’s autobiography, published last year, covered a lot of what he’s saying on Broadway, and parts of his speeches tonight were nearly verbatim quotes from the book. But it was clear the book, the words, weren’t enough without the music. Springsteen’s a poet, but his poetry is meant to be played, not read.

    The unexpected musical highlight of the evening was Promised Land, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first long car trip out of Jersey, one that took him across the great western deserts. Bruce made no secret that the promise he saw in America then remained unfulfilled now in what he described as a dark chapter in American politics. He finished the song, updated from 1978 to 2017 in those few words, aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification directly to the hushed crowd. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so. Unlike the other songs, applause waited for a moment of silence to pass after the last chord faded. The universe of people who had previously heard Bruce Springsteen sing to them unamplified just grew exponentially.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, and four hours on stage more common, the Broadway show was about two hours, with a definitive ending. No encores. It was tight, maybe even felt a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    While the tickets cost a fortune, and while Bruce was careful to throw in a few stagy tunes (Dancing in the Dark didn’t fit otherwise except maybe to pump up the crowd for the finale), much of what happened in the theater wasn’t for us. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. It’s something Bruce maybe didn’t even know he told us about in his autobiography, but when you see the book as a whole, his adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring and marathon shows. You could imagine if it was somehow magically possible, Bruce would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    The evening was as dark and sad and as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowed him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life, indulged him through the low periods, let him sneak some mediocre material in here and there. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now not to focus on a bad track or a disappointing night, but take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was enough. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. It was on side B of his third album and it was 1975 when it came out. And everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time, but now, 42 years passed, we were all hearing it together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment, our lives flashing before us. Born to Run on a car radio, our hand slipping a satin bra strap aside. Born to Run in some foreign dive bar, reminding us we were forever tied to who we are no matter how far we’d run ourselves. The DJ played Born to Run at our wedding even though there is no way anyone can dance to it. Born to Run the first time one of our kids asked “What’s that, it’s not bad” and every time we heard it on 8-track, cassette, LP, CD, MP-3 and had to face the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Bruce’s message was clear and true, and he made sure we got it: I may not be doing this much longer. The weight of it all – the bad father, the love lost, the hate and pain collected, that marriage gone wrong – feels heavier than it used to. So, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these two hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of.

    In a way, they always were.



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